Microsoft Office 2010: An intriguing beta

The revised productivity suite brings interface tweaks, useful desktop innovations, and integration with minimalist Web apps

With the release of the Office 2010 beta, the general public finally gets to check out how Microsoft plans to deliver on its promises for the next edition of its flagship productivity suite--namely, close integration with lightweight Web versions of core apps (Excel and PowerPoint Web are the first to debut for consumers via Windows Live, with Word and OneNote available only in the business-oriented SharePoint 2010 server beta), better multimedia support, a subtle interface refresh, and a slew of features designed to make document creation and sharing easier. But there's some news too, most notably support within Outlook for tracking feeds from social networks.

Suitewide, the most immediately apparent change is the departure of the round Office button that brought up commands for saving and printing documents as well as for changing application-specific settings. Instead, Microsoft returns to a familiar menu convention: a File tab that brings up a full screen of commands and information. Microsoft calls this screen the Backstage View.

The left navigation bar in Backstage View holds many of the commands, but most of the real estate is devoted to big panes filled with document-specific items such as editing permissions, links to autosaved versions, file size, and even a thumbnail. (Businesses can customize Backstage View to integrate their workflow processes.) It's a nice idea in many ways--the ability to return to previous unsaved versions is especially good--but it can also be a bit disconcerting since you completely lose sight of the original document (except for the tiny thumbnail).

One of the cooler suitewide tweaks affects a simple task that most people perform every day: cutting and pasting text. Having observed that in many instances users immediately undo their paste, Microsoft engineers have added a paste-preview feature that lets you see the results before you commit (similar to the mouse-over previews of font changes and other edits available in the ribbon). You even get to choose between previews that apply different formatting options, either maintaining source formatting, merging with destination formatting, or removing all formatting.

Improved picture-editing tools allow you to preview and apply cropping (and many new adjustments and effects) on the fly as you insert images into Office documents.

The ribbon interface introduced in the key Office 2007 apps goes suitewide in Office 2010, with more contextual changes. Application icons are chunkier and restricted to one letter, which invites confusion in the case of PowerPoint and Publisher, and bemusement in the case of Outlook and OneNote (the latter's icon is the letter N, one leg of which looks like a 1).

Other interface changes include a new color scheme, with classy muted grays that make the sky blues of past editions seem almost boisterous, and an orange logo instead of the multicolored one of years past.

Web Applications

The Office Web Apps collection, Microsoft's eagerly awaited answer to Google Docs, Zoho, and other Web-based productivity tools, is still a work in progress--not surprising since the current apps are prominently labeled as technical previews. Microsoft says that all of them will be finalized and available--to consumers via SkyDrive (Microsoft's free online file storage service) and to businesses via SharePoint 2010 server software--when Office 2010 ships in the first half of 2010.

However, judging from the preview versions I tried through a SharePoint site that Microsoft set up for reviewers (and through the technical beta program on SkyDrive), they're no match for the competition. For example, Excel can't create charts, Word has no support for revision mode, and the slide-creation tools in PowerPoint pale next to the wealth of choices in Zoho Show.

SharePoint's interface for document sharing isn't particularly intuitive: You can't create new documents on the Web (although Microsoft says eventually you'll be able to)--instead you must upload them from desktop apps. And regardless of location (SharePoint or Windows Live), Office Web Apps will work only with documents in Microsoft's XML file formats (.docx, .xlsx, and so on). But in my tests, at least, Office Web Apps generally delivered on fidelity, meaning that what you see online is what you get on the desktop and vice versa, which isn't always the case with other Web apps that support the Office formats.

Though all Windows Live users will have access to Office Web Apps, the offerings' lack of features suggests that Microsoft isn't trying to create a Web-based productivity ecosystem so much as it is attempting to give customers a Microsoft option for basic editing when they don't have access to the desktop software.

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Yardena Arar

PC World (US online)
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