Review Office is in a curious competitive position. On the desktop, Office is untouchable - even the free OpenOffice.org has done little to shift its hold, especially in business.
Microsoft should worry though about competing online document authoring and collaboration tools, especially those from Google. They lack features now, but compensate by offering zero install and excellent integration with other web services. As they improve, some users will ask whether they need a bloated desktop suite at all.
This gives Office 2010 a dual challenge: first, to persuade users that the upgrade from Office 2007 or earlier is worth it and second, to convince them that its technical model is still right. That said, Office is also reaching for the cloud, mainly in conjunction with the SharePoint collaboration server. The best of both worlds, or an awkward hybrid?
The second Office 2010 beta has officially been released and the reviewer's guide lists nearly 200 new features, plus a newcomer to the suite, SharePoint Workspace 2010. Here is what you need to know. First, Office now has a 64-bit option, which is welcome now that 64-bit Windows is mainstream, though unlikely to have the same impact as did the move to 32-bit way back when.
Second, Office 2010 refines the more annoying features of Office 2007, which introduced a new ribbon-based interface that continues to frustrate some users. In Office 2010 the ribbon is customizable, via an ugly but effective Customize Ribbon dialog. Microsoft has also renamed the Office button, which confuses new users, and this is now simply labeled File.
Clicking File opens the Backstage view, which occupies the entire application window with options including saving, opening, printing, setting permissions, sharing, and starting new documents. This works for print, showing an instant preview panel, but is overkill for simple functions like Save. Users will find it easily, which is Microsoft's main goal here.
The Backstage graphical file menu, here in Excel
Several features run across multiple applications, including Text Effects for decorated text within a document without the need for Word Art embedded objects, though Word Art is still needed for some effects, and new tools for embedded video and images.
OneNote is greatly improved. You can now dock a OneNote window to the side of the screen and use it to take notes on documents you are reading. The link is preserved, so that when you click on a note later, you can open the document and position to which it relates. Unfortunately it only works with Word, PowerPoint and Internet Explorer, but this is excellent.
Outlook is the application users love to hate, and those mixed feelings will likely continue in the 2010 version, now sporting its own ribbon UI. Here is an unfixed annoyance: if Outlook is still indexing, and you perform a search, it gives incomplete results rather than automatically switching to a non-indexed search.
Outlook has a new conversation view, which is meant to sort messages into meaningful threads. Unfortunately it appears to be based entirely on the message title. When I received an email entitled "Printer", Outlook happily and wrongly threaded it with a message of the same title from 18 months earlier. Conversation view also slugs performance and I quickly switched to the old simple date order.
The most intriguing new feature in Outlook is called the Social Connector. If you open an email or contact, a new People Pane invites you to click a photo to see "social network updates" from that person, along with related Outlook items like emails or meetings.
"Outlook Social Connector will connect to Microsoft networks such as SharePoint 2010 today and Windows Live at launch, as well as any social network that wants to build a connector," says product Manager Chris Adams, adding that "we are collaborating with LinkedIn to build providers for LinkedIn networks. Outlook Social Connector is an open platform, and we encourage third party networks to build Outlook Social Connector providers."
Newcomer SharePoint WorkSpace 2010 lets you take SharePoint documents offline
This brings us to the web aspect of Office 2010. This is essentially a SharePoint story. Office Web Apps require SharePoint Foundation Services 4, which replaces SharePoint Services as the version that comes free with Windows Server. There is also a cloud version, which is a feature of Windows Live SkyDrive. The Web Apps offer a good-looking but very much cut-down set of tools for creating and editing documents in the browser.
Microsoft's differentiation here is that the document format is unchanged whether you edit on the desktop or in the cloud, whereas Google apps require an import and export process. Documents stored on SharePoint are also enabled for simultaneous multi-author editing.
If you want the full Office 2010 experience, SharePoint 2010 is essential. SharePoint has taken web features like blogs, updates and social networking, and sanitized them for a corporate environment. These then surface in places such as Outlook's social connector.
SharePoint WorkSpace 2010, part of the new Office client, lets you take SharePoint documents offline, with synchronization of offline edits when you reconnect. This was previously possible with SharePoint Lists in Outlook, but WorkSpace 2010 is a better and more robust solution.
Outlook aside, Office 2010 beta performs well and offers a decent upgrade from Office 2007. The new SharePoint-based features mean that Office now also has a web store, though it is spoiled by the cut-down functionality of the web apps and the monstrous underlying complexity of SharePoint itself. ®