Hands on: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Online integration is a key aim of the beta

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In addition, the Outlook Social Connector could display any status updates that someone has made on social networking sites -- for example, if they have a new job, have posted new photos, and so on. That means that you will be able to participate with those social networking sites in many ways without leaving Outlook. Outlook could start to become the center of your social networking -- no need to visit multiple sites, because the information could be shipped straight to Outlook without your intervention.

It's not clear yet whether this will work the other way around -- that is, whether you'll be able to post an update in Outlook and have it automatically sent to your social networking sites -- because the individual connectors haven't yet been built. My guess is that it will be possible, but we won't know until then.

Also potentially useful is an Activities RSS feed piped into the Social Connector. If you've included a URL for a contact's blog in your Outlook contact record for that person, the Connector will tell you whenever there's a new blog post. (Note, however, that I wasn't able to get this feature to work in the beta.) In addition, it will show you when a contact has updated their SharePoint My Site, which is a kind of personal portal or home page people have in SharePoint.

But at this point these are all just promises. In order for these features to work, the social networks (or third-party developers) will have to create the connectors. Once they do, you'll have to install them by clicking the + button in the Social Connector and following installation instructions. However, if the feature works as promised -- and it would be very surprising if the most popular social networking sites didn't release connectors -- Outlook will become more powerful by a significant magnitude.

Some of these features may sound familiar to people who use the Xobni add-in for Outlook, because Xobni offers tools for viewing all communications with a contact. The add-in also does some of these types of things with social networking sites, although the integration with social networking sites is not quite as complete as Outlook's social connector promises to be.

A new Backstage

Another big change in the beta from the Technical Preview is Backstage View, an all-in-one location for information about documents and common tasks you can perform, such as saving, printing and sharing documents. It brings features and information that are located in many places in Office 2007 into one location in Office 2010.

The version of Backstage that was available in Office 2010's Technical Preview was useful but somewhat problematic from a design and user interface standpoint. When you clicked the Backstage button, all the other tabs on the ribbon vanished, and getting to another tab on the Ribbon when you were in Backstage took multiple steps. Now the tabs are visible and clickable even when you're in Backstage.

Backstage varies from application to application; the Backstage View in Outlook, for example, is very different than the one in Word. In Outlook, Backstage lets you modify your e-mail settings, clean up and archive your mailboxes, create rules, save files, save attachments and print. In Word, you can prepare a document for sharing, change document permissions, check versions of the document and much more.

Particularly powerful in Word and several other Office apps are Backstage 's sharing features. Using the Sharing area of Backstage, you can send the current file as an e-mail, save it to a SharePoint server, save it to your SkyDrive online storage account and publish it as a blog post.

Microsoft Office 2010 beta

Backstage View bringing features and information into one location.

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Making Backstage potentially more useful is its extensibility -- companies can build Backstage add-ins for their own employees, for their customers or for others. For example, an enterprise could build buttons into its version of Office that integrate with that company's business processes -- sending a file to a manager for review, exporting data into a database, and so on.

A bank could develop a Backstage add-in that lets its customers grab information from their accounts and import it into Excel. Again, though, these kinds of add-ins don't exist yet, so it's not clear whether Backstage's extensibility will be truly useful.

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