Microsoft TechEd 2009 attendees--the few, the proud, and the H1N1 resistant--were among the first to get an early peek at the Microsoft Office 2010 Technical Preview, which is due in July. Based on a very early version of the Tech Preview code, here are a few of the changes that we can expect to see in Microsoft's next office productivity suite.

First, and not surprisingly, it looks like all of the applications in the Office 2010 suite will adopt a new version of the ribbon UI that first debuted on some applications in Office 2007. This version of the ribbon drops the handful of color schemes that were previously offered and instead picks up the glass color that is specified by the user in Windows Vista or Windows 7.

The Office Start button, which essentially launched a new-look File menu, is also gone in Office 2010. Instead, when you click the new Office Start button, you see a new interface listing File menu-like choices (Save, Save As, Open, Close, and so on), application-specific launch points (like new document types, forms, templates, and so on), and application options. Each application also adopts a unique color scheme based around the color of its icon.

Also new: a dedicated gadget, next to the Help icon, for minimizing the ribbon, which significantly cleans up the UI and retrieves lost onscreen real estate. The old method of double-clicking any ribbon tab still works, but I’m guessing most users simply didn't even know that shortcut existed.

Office 2010 will come in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors, though it's unclear what advantages the 64-bit version will offer. Interestingly, at least in the Tech Preview, the two versions are delivered on the same installation DVD. And if you try to install the 64-bit version on a system that already has a previous version of Office, you're out of luck: It will direct you to the 32-bit version instead. (Indeed, I had problems installing the 64-bit Office even after removing all obvious Office-related programs from Windows.)

Microsoft Groove fans will be interested to see that the application and service are finally being brought into the Office fold in a more obvious way. The application has been renamed SharePoint Workspace, which makes sense from a branding perspective. But more important, perhaps, it's finally starting to look and work like other Office applications as well. (Even the Launchbar picks up a mini version of the ribbon.)

I haven't seen many huge functional changes, though I would call out Microsoft Outlook as the one that's most changed when compared to previous versions. I'm surprised that native integration with Microsoft's Hotmail- and Windows Live-based email, contacts, and calendaring services is still not built right into Outlook; you're expected to download and install the Connector software, but of course the current version doesn't work with Office 2010. However, Outlook works surprisingly well in ribbon form, and it picks up some interesting views, like a Schedule view in Calendar. I can't speak to the performance yet, though that's always a concern with Outlook.

When the Office 2010 Tech Preview hits over the summer, we'll presumably also get access to the Office Web Applications, lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that run from Microsoft's servers or, for enterprises, on in-house web servers.

Curious about how this all looks? You can find a screenshot gallery of this early Office 2010 Tech Preview build on the SuperSite for Windows.

 

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