Office 2010 looks solid and smooth

Say what you will about the Windows monopoly, it was Office that made Microsoft's fortune. After all, what's an OS without applications? Over the years, Microsoft evolved a humble word processor and spreadsheet into a tightly integrated suite of groupware and productivity applications. Today you'll scarcely find a business desktop without Microsoft Office installed.

At the same time, competition has never been tougher. Open source alternatives, such as, now offer the basic functionality of business productivity software for free. And Web-based productivity software, including Google Apps and Zoho Office, threatens to subvert the traditional desktop software model altogether.

[ A public beta of Office 2010 could begin later this year. In the meantime, brush up on the latest features in InfoWorld's Office 2010 screenshot slideshow. ]

But Microsoft is no slouch. Office 2010, the next version of the software suite, is not expected to arrive until next year, but a technology preview shows it to be another solid effort from the Redmond-based giant. With this release, Microsoft has polished and expanded upon the groundwork it laid with Office 2007, while continuing to add new capabilities, particularly in the area of networked collaboration.

Love it or hate it, the Ribbon is here to stay When Microsoft first unveiled its revamped UI concept for Office 2007, some hailed it as revolutionary. Others complained that the Ribbon was too big and too awkward, and created an unnecessary learning curve by messing around with menus that worked perfectly fine where they were.

I happen to belong to the first camp, but if you count yourself among the Ribbon-haters you'll definitely be disappointed with Office 2010. This time, the Ribbon is pervasive across all components of the Office suite, including those that lacked it in Office 2007 (such as OneNote, Outlook, and Visio). For those of us who feel more productive with the Ribbon, this consistency is a welcome improvement. Sorry, haters.

The Ribbon has undergone a slight revamp in Office 2010, however, which could help win it some new converts. Gone is the big, orb-shaped button in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that held (or hid) the File menu options. In its place is a more subdued, rectangular button bearing the Office logo, and this time it's aligned with the rest of the tabs on the Ribbon. There's also a button to minimize the Ribbon, which is sure to please everyone who never figured out that double-clicking would do the job in Office 2007.

Clicking the Office button brings up something that Microsoft is calling the "Backstage view," where you'll find file, print, and collaboration options. This is similar to how it worked in Office 2007, but Backstage view is even less like the traditional File menu than the older version. Instead, you can think of it as a new, explicit context for document operations. Printing, in particular, is much improved, offering a wider range of settings alongside a live preview of your document.

Piling on the features Feature bloat is a perennial criticism leveled at Microsoft Office, and the new version continues the tradition of adding various new capabilities, both to individual applications and across the suite. Users may well ask how many features you really need in a spreadsheet or a word processor; but as Joel Spolsky once observed, although 80 percent of users probably only use 20 percent of an application's features, it's a different 20 percent for each user. While most of us could likely do without any of the latest additions, somewhere there's a user who has been dying for each one.

Office 2010 brings a number of suite-wide enhancements. One major update is 64-bit support. Access databases can now grow to gigabytes in size -- as can Excel spreadsheets, for those who like to pretend Excel is a database. Another nice global addition is Paste Preview, which gives you an interactive view of cut and paste operations: No more Paste, Undo, then Paste Special when a paste operation transfers unwanted formatting. Also, support for digital ink has been improved throughout the suite.

[ Which is the better Office alternative? See the Test Center review of 3.1 and SoftMaker Office 2008. ]

Predictably, enhanced multimedia support is a pervasive theme. You can now perform basic image editing within most Office applications, and PowerPoint even allows editing and formatting of video directly within a slideshow, in addition to sporting improved animation tools.

The revamped Outlook client supports voicemail and fax delivery to your inbox when coupled with an Exchange 2010 server, and messages can also now be organized into a condensed Conversation View, which resembles threaded message boards. In addition, Outlook 2010 introduces a Quick Steps section of the Ribbon that helps to streamline multi-step tasks, such as filing and archiving.

Nifty new features for Excel include Sparklines, which are small graphs that can be inserted into cells to display trends, as well as various improvements to Pivot Table functions.

Networking and collaboration is king By far the most significant changes, however, stem from Microsoft's ongoing efforts to elevate Office from a humble desktop productivity suite to a fully networked workgroup infrastructure system. Communication and collaboration features are now baked into every application in the Office 2010 family.

For example, new co-authoring features in Excel, OneNote, and Word allow you to publish documents for collaboration, where individual team members can "check out" different sections of the same document for editing. Similarly, PowerPoint users can now broadcast their slideshows over the Internet: No more sending slide stacks as e-mail attachments for long-distance presentations.

For individual users, these and other collaboration features are made possible through Microsoft's Windows Live online hub. But for business users the real heart of Office 2010's new networked capabilities is SharePoint Server 2010, which plays host to workgroup functions behind the firewall. Tellingly, the Groove client has been renamed SharePoint Workspace in Office 2010, and workspaces can now be hosted on a SharePoint Server as well as shared peer-to-peer.

Presence seems to be another hot topic for Microsoft, and support for presence information is available in all Office 2010 applications via the Backstage view, provided you're running Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2.

[ Keep pace with the latest Microsoft technologies in the Enterprise Desktop and Enterprise Windows blogs. ]

But the most eyebrow-raising additions to Office 2010 will surely be the forthcoming, Web-based versions of Excel, Word, OneNote, and PowerPoint. Unfortunately, these were not available for review during the technology preview, but Microsoft says they will launch when the final version of the suite ships. Microsoft claims absolute document fidelity between the online and desktop versions of the Office 2010 apps. If true, this will be a huge step, as among other benefits it will allow users to open Office documents even if they don't own the correct version of the suite. Microsoft says mobile versions of the suite will also be available by Office 2010's formal launch.

So will it be worth it? Office is the reigning king of business productivity software, so in a sense there's little point in discussing the wisdom of each new upgrade. You'll be using the latest version sooner or later. But when and how to make the transition?

Even more than Office 2007, Office 2010 represents Microsoft's latest thinking in user experience. It meshes well with Vista, but the Ribbon-based application windows seem like alien visitors on an XP desktop (and you can forget about the Windows Classic theme). The Office 2010 apps don't seem to need any more memory than the 2007 versions, but if you can't stand the modern Windows look-and-feel, this release may not be for you.

More importantly, it's worth considering the issue of lock-in. Office 2010's collaboration features sound exciting, but they rely heavily on SharePoint Server, Office Communication Server, Exchange, and other Microsoft back-office products. There are no drop-in replacements for any of these offerings, open source or otherwise. Once you're in, you're in.

That said, Microsoft isn't taking competition in the office productivity software market lying down. Office 2010 looks to be another solid release that further streamlines the suite's look and feel, while adding a host of new features and improvements that should be of particular interest to workgroups and networked enterprises.

This story, "Office 2010 looks solid and smooth" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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