Dissecting Microsoft Office 2010

The shipping version of Microsoft's latest office suite offers some exciting new changes, including a vastly improved Outlook.

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Backstage takes center stage

Another new feature, Backstage View, appears when you click the File button on any Office application.

Microsoft Office 2010

(The File button, by the way, replaces the Office orb button from Office 2007, which Microsoft says thoroughly confused people -- many thought it was a piece of branding eye candy rather than a functional button.)

Backstage is an all-purpose way to perform common tasks such as saving, printing, sharing or gathering information about documents. It is a useful new feature that brings together important but disparate functions that previously were either hard to get to or were found in multiple locations.

What you see in Backstage varies depending on the application you're in. For example, when using it in Word, you can open, save, close and print files; prepare a document for sharing; change document permissions; check versions of the document and much more. In Outlook, you can modify your e-mail settings, clean up and archive your mailboxes, create rules, save files, save attachments and print.

One of Backstage's most powerful features is the "Save & Send" choice, which offers various options for sharing a file with others.

In Word, for example, you can send your current file as an e-mail, save it to a SharePoint server, save it to your SkyDrive online storage account or publish it as a blog post. In PowerPoint, you can also broadcast your presentation over the Web (more on that later) or package your presentation into a playable CD.

Backstage is also extensible so that enterprises can build add-ins for it. For example, a bank could develop a Backstage add-in that lets its customers grab information from their accounts and import the data into Excel. We'll have to see, though, whether any third-party developers or enterprises develop for it.

Microsoft Office 2010

Backstage brings together important functions that were previously hard to find.

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Individual applications

Even more important than changes that affect the overall suite are the additions Microsoft made to individual applications. Outlook in particular has received a significant makeover. In this section, I'll look at what's new in Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

A far better Outlook

If you need only one reason to buy Office 2010, it's to get the latest version of Outlook. This may well be the most important makeover Microsoft's e-mail, calendaring and contacts software has ever gotten; the more I use it, the more I realize this is the Outlook I've been waiting for. Every new version of every piece of software I've ever reviewed promises that it will be a productivity-enhancer. Outlook 2010 is the rare one that actually delivers.

It does that by focusing on the everyday problems most of us face when working with e-mail, and it starts with a basic problem: e-mail overload.

The previous version of Outlook allowed you to see threads of a single conversation, but it was so awkward and kludgy that it served very little purpose. I rarely, if ever, used it. But the new Conversation View makes it easy to follow a continuing e-mail conversation with one or multiple people. It puts a small triangle next to every e-mail that has more than one message in a thread. Click the triangle to see a chronological list of every message in the conversation; click any message to jump to it.

Conversation View can show messages you've sent as well as received, and offers a quick and simple way to follow entire conversations. No longer will you have to hunt through multiple folders on multiple dates to follow a single conversation. I've been using Outlook 2010 for about a week, and this single feature has already saved me hours of work.

Microsoft Office 2010

Conversation View can show messages you've sent as well as received.

Click to view larger image.

That being said, the view can be somewhat confusing to use. When you click the triangle, at first you won't see all the messages in the conversation -- you'll see messages you've received, but not sent. You need to click again to see messages you've sent. And the view has a number of buttons and lines connecting the messages that are confusing to follow.

Conversation View also has some anomalies that need to be fixed. It groups all messages with the same subject line together, and therefore it sometimes puts unrelated messages in the same conversation. For example, if you've used the subject line "Long time, no speak" with several different people, it will group all of those messages from separate conversations into a single one, even though the conversations are unrelated. But despite these minor gotchas, this is a great tool for organizing e-mail.

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