Microsoft this week made the beta version of its Office 2010 productivity suite available to IT pros via MSDN and TechNet, but fear not if you're not a member: This release will soon be issued to the public as well. The Office 2010 beta is notable for two reasons. In addition to its broad availability—the previous public release, a Community Technical Preview, saw only limited distribution—the beta is also essentially feature-complete. So it offers a near-complete preview of the final product.
From a broad perspective, Office 2010 touches on the same themes Microsoft has been touting for some time. It tackles today's needs—what Microsoft calls fundamentals, or things we take for granted like Undo, formatting, cut/copy and paste, and so on—as well as the expectations users will have in the future. These include high-definition content (pictures and video), advanced visualizations, real-time collaboration, and the ability to work anytime, anywhere.
That last bit refers to a piece of the Office puzzle that will not be made available in newer form with the beta. That is, the web-based Office Web Applications (OWA) and an upcoming revision to Office Mobile (for Windows Mobile smartphones) are not being made available as part of the beta. We can expect updates to those products later, Microsoft says.
New Beta Features
What we do see in the beta, however, is pretty impressive, though this will be less dramatic to those who have already moved to Office 2007. In Office 2010, Microsoft takes the logical step of adding the controversial but efficient ribbon user interface to all of its Office applications—and to related products, like SharePoint 2010 and Outlook Web Access—creating a more consistent and discoverable user experience across a wide range of solutions.
Most of the traditional Office applications see only a minor bump in Office 2010. Word, for example, is the non-browser application I probably send the most time in each day, and the differences between Word 2007 and Word 2010 are disappointingly minimal. Excel 2010, however, benefits greatly from new features and, with an x64 version, huge scalability gains.
The most dramatically improved application this time around is Outlook. Love it or hate it (I trend more toward the latter), no one can deny that Outlook sits at the center of many users' days, acting like a front-end to their business and personal lives. While I would have preferred a complete do-over for this complex and top-heavy application, Microsoft's improvements this time around are nonetheless impressive. Yes, Outlook gets the ribbon of course, and while it's among the more ill-fitting ribbon UIs I've seen, it does bring with it the same productivity and discoverability benefits it does elsewhere. Outlook also includes important new features like Conversation View, automated multi-step task with Quick Steps, the ability to access (finally) multiple Exchange accounts, and more.
Looked at from a higher view, Microsoft is also consolidating the way it presents Office to customers, both from a product lineup standpoint and across the board in each application. The Office 2010 product editions have been further streamlined with an interesting emphasis this time around on individual sales, which makes sense given that the mix of corporate and consumer sales is skewing toward retail. A new Starter edition, including bare-bones, ad-supported versions of just Word and Excel, will be available only with new computers (and will replace Works). A new Home and Business edition adds Outlook to the mix of apps (Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint) provided by Home and Student.
On the business side, you're going to see Professional and Professional Plus editions only, so Ultimate is gone. Microsoft's note taking application, OneNote, is a new addition to each, and Professional Plus picks up the Groove-based SharePoint Workspace client which, yes, works with SharePoint, of course, but can also be used to create peer-to-peer SharePoint-like collaborative environments, all without the need for a server.
Office 2010 also introduces a cleaner, new Office logo, new icons for each application, a new BackStage view that replaces the old options dialogs, and a revised Office button that looks and works more like the old File menu. Also, the pale blue color scheme from Office 2007 is gone, replaced with a more translucent and neutral color scheme that doesn't detract from the content you're working on.
I have a lot more to say about the Office 2010 Beta, but I'm out of space. Stay tuned to the SuperSite for Windows for a more in-depth write-up about this important release.