Sometime in the first half of 2010, Microsoft will release the next version of Office 2010, along with other applications, servers, and web services that will make up the Office 2010 wave. Before then, however, customers will have the chance to evaluate these technologies in the Office 2010 Technical Preview.

This month, I'd like to focus on the end-user application suite, Office 2010. Here's what you need to know about the Microsoft Office 2010 Technical Preview.

Historical Perspective
Microsoft Office is a phenomenon, installed on over 500 million PCs worldwide and still unassailable by any viable competition. Over the years, the suite has evolved from a software bundle into a family of integrated products that spans the PC desktop, Windows Mobile devices, and, in Office 2010, the web. (Office also includes server-based components, such as SharePoint, that we'll examine at a later time.)

Office long ago outgrew the standard UI conventions found in Windows applications, and in Office 2007, Microsoft began deploying the Ribbon UI. The Ribbon offers a more graphical and discoverable interface, and in Office 2010, that UI has been extended to all of the remaining Office applications as well as the web-based Office Web Applications and SharePoint on the web, providing a consistent UI across all Office access points.

In Office 2010, Microsoft continues its innovation of productivity UIs with Microsoft BackStage View, which combines common application functions into a simpler, more discoverable interface, and it’s added more to Outlook's organizational toolbox.

Looking at the Technical Preview
The Office 2010 Technical Preview includes updates to all of the familiar applications. Improvements include the aforementioned BackStage View feature; Paste Preview, which puts common paste options in a handy tool tip; and picture-editing capabilities, which are provided directly inside the appropriate applications.

For the first time, Office 2010 will be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, which means Excel 2010 will now be able to work with massive, memory-intensive (over 4GB) spreadsheets and data sets. Excel also picks up in-cell charts and graphs called Sparklines, which provide at-a-glance access to trend data.

New Slicers help you visually filter data, such as pivot tables, for easier interactivity. And you can now upload spreadsheets to SharePoint Server 2010, providing web-based users with the same functionality found in the Excel Windows application.

Outlook 2010 picks up the Ribbon UI to good effect, and Outlook is, in many ways, the most dramatically improved application in the suite. A new MailTips feature alerts you when you're about to send an inappropriate email, such as to a group that includes recipients outside your organization.

A new Ribbon-based Quick Steps feature exposes a gallery of multi-command tasks, like "Reply and Delete" and "Team E-mail," that you can access in one click. (Best of all, you can make your own.) A new Conversation View helps manage multi-email conversations, and a new Clean Up tool removes repeated text from multiple emails, making the thread more readable.

PowerPoint 2010 uses your PC's graphical processor to display amazing animations and transitions. Building on its ability to insert video, PowerPoint now lets you edit that video in the application, compress it, and change the video's shape, border, effects, and other properties.

PowerPoint 2010 can also "broadcast" presentations to the web, allowing users to view presentations even when they don't have the application installed. (This feature works with IE, Firefox, and even Safari.)

Word 2010 features improved typography, new text effects, integrated picture editing, and a greatly improved Document Map feature, which helps you work with the structure of a document at a high level.

OneNote 2010, the latest version of Microsoft's "idea processor" and general brainstorming tool, makes it easier to share notebooks with others and collaborate in real time. It also offers improved Outlook integration.

What’s Next
Missing from the Office 2010 Technical Preview are prerelease versions of the Office Web Applications, including web-based Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Those will be delivered later in the summer, Microsoft says, followed up by true beta versions of the Office 2010 suite and other Office applications and servers.

Expect major SharePoint 2010 announcements later in 2009 as well as a version of Microsoft Office Mobile for Windows Mobile with added editing functionality.

Recommendations
Office 2010 appears to continue the evolution of Office that began with Office 2007. If you're already on Office 2007, I see little reason to jump into Office 2010 right away.

But if you’re not, the Technical Preview is the ideal vehicle to test-drive Microsoft’s improved office productivity wares.

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