Hands on: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Online integration is a key aim of the beta

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Office Web Apps

The final major change in the Office 2010 beta is the addition of Office Web Apps functionality. The Technical Preview of Office Web Apps was released separately from the Office Technical Preview, so this beta is the first time that the two have been merged publicly.

When released in its final form, Office Web Apps will come in three flavors: a hosted version, powered by SharePoint, for business customers who pay for hosted accounts on Microsoft Online Services; a corporate version, which will be hosted on enterprises' own SharePoint servers; and a consumer version, tied to SkyDrive, Microsoft's free online storage service.

The three versions will be largely the same, with some small differences. The consumer version will have ads as well as features such as publishing to third-party blogs, while the other two versions will include enterprise-level tools such as backup and restore, version control and IT control over how Web Apps are used.

In the beta, only the hosted SharePoint version is available; the Technical Preview consumer version on SkyDrive won't be updated until the second half of 2010. I reviewed the SharePoint version on a site provided and hosted by Microsoft. The site did not allow for creating new documents, so I was not able to test that feature, but I was able to edit existing documents. Presumably, the editing features for document creation will be the same as those available for editing existing documents.

Office Web Apps is composed of four applications: Excel, PowerPoint, Word and OneNote. In the beta, as in the Technical Preview, Excel and PowerPoint are more complete, while Word and OneNote are still works in progress.

The Office Web Apps look very much like the equivalent client versions, and are far more polished-looking than the competing Google Docs applications. They display documents with full fidelity, and the documents look the same online as they do on your PC.

There have been some changes since the Technical Preview release, although no major ones. You can now edit documents in Word, something not previously possible, and you get the control you would expect over fonts, text size and so on. You also get spell-checking and the ability to insert and handle tables. But there's not a lot beyond that -- no search and replace, no header or footer handling, no graphics handling, no page layout controls, no markup ... in fact, there is very little else at this point.

The OneNote Web App, which wasn't available during the Technical Preview, is now available, but as with Word, you can only do viewing and rudimentary editing. Microsoft says that both the Word and OneNote Web Apps are still in a relatively early stage of development and will be beefed up in future betas.

Microsoft Office 2010 beta

The Web version of Excel (on the right), looks much like the client version of Excel (on the left).

Click to view larger image

I found that little, if anything, changed in the Excel and PowerPoint Web Apps between the Technical Preview and beta, and Microsoft says that both apps are now feature complete. That's a surprise, given how underpowered both are compared to their client versions.

In Excel, for example, you can't add charts to your documents, although if you've added a chart in the client version, the chart will display and you can edit it. And in PowerPoint, you can't add backgrounds to presentations or animations between slides. Given that Microsoft needs to fend off Google Docs, it's hard to understand why the company left out these basic and important features.

The beta does show how compelling Office Web Apps can be when paired with SharePoint. SharePoint displays all shared documents of a team, workgroup or organization, and lets you lock documents so that only one person can work on them at a time, or allow multiple people to work on them together.

It also lets you build workflows for individual documents -- for collecting feedback, automatically routing them to approvers and so on. It's not clear, though, whether in the public beta these features will be available to anyone beyond those who have access to a site created by Microsoft, as I did.

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