In many ways, Microsoft Office is a force of nature. Installed on several hundred million PCs, it's a key component in most people's workday and it's responsible for billions in quarterly revenues for the software giant. But this very success works against Office as well. How can you convince customers to upgrade to the latest version when the previous several versions are already so good?

For Microsoft, this is a very real problem. According to the company, 65 to 70 percent of all Office users worldwide are still using Office 2003, with most of the remainder on Office 2007. As always, a few diehards cling to even older versions.

But at least Office has to compete only with itself, for now anyway. On the desktop, free and paid office productivity suites haven't provided any meaningful competition since the 1990s. Online competitors such as Google Docs make a lot of noise, thanks to the tech industry's fascination with cloud computing, but they haven't really chipped away at Office usage.

Still, one of the big trends with Office 2010 is essentially a realization on Microsoft's part that the world is changing and that Office must change with it. So the traditional Office suites and applications now offer better integration with online storage services. This integration isn't just with the corporate-oriented SharePoint but also with the consumer-friendly SkyDrive. There are versions of four Office applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—that run in the cloud by means of the new Office Web Apps. Although they're not full-fledged replacements for their desktop-bound brethren, they practically ooze with potential. And the Office versions for mobile devices continue forward, not just for Windows Mobile and the upcoming Windows Phone, but also for select Nokia devices.

Together, the Office 2010 suites for the desktop, Office Web Apps, and Office Mobile 2010 constitute Office 2010.

Office 2010 Suites

There's a lot that can be said about Office, but some interesting trends emerge when you look at the product suites and applications from a high level. With a few rare exceptions, this is a mature set of solutions, and some of them—Excel and Word, for example—actually date back 25 years. Thus, the core Office applications aren't really seeing any revolutionary changes this time around, but that's how it should be.

What you do see across the board is the full "ribbonization" of Office 2010. In Office 2007, only some of the applications went through this process, in which the old-school menu and toolbar system is replaced by a more efficient and productive UI called the ribbon. In Office 2010, every application, even Outlook, has been "ribbonized."

But Microsoft went much further and really made the ribbon truly useful in Office 2010, which should silence the critics. Now, the ribbon is fully customizable, so if you want to remove or add some commands on the tabs or even remove or create your own tabs, you're in luck.

Although the ribbon is now consistently applied in all the Office applications, Microsoft has made only a half-hearted effort in the Backstage view. New to Office 2010, the Backstage view is an attempt to provide a single location for file and application management tasks. It's roughly analogous to the old File menu from previous Office versions. (So much so that the ALT+F keyboard shortcut enables this feature.) Backstage view takes up the whole application window, replacing whatever you're working on. Although that might seem strange at first, it provides a nice amount of screen real estate for the task at hand, be it sharing, saving, printing, or another task.

But the problem with the Backstage view is that some options use this entire application window area to do their thing while others, confusingly, still trigger old-school dialog boxes. When those dialog boxes appear, the Backstage view disappears. Microsoft confirmed to me that it had intended to make the Backstage view consistent in all the Office 2010 applications but ran out of time. So, as with the ribbon in Office 2007, the Backstage view is a good idea that's not completely implemented.

Out of all the core Office applications, Outlook boasts the biggest changes. If you're an Office 2007 user wondering if Office 2010 is worth the upgrade, this could seal the deal.

Outlook is now ribbonized, and it works pretty well in this configuration. But that's not the biggest change. The biggest changes are other features that will have you managing your email more efficiently than before. Key among these features are the new conversation management tools:

  • Conversation View, which aggregates messages from the same conversation into a single collapsible entry
  • Clean Up, which removes redundant email messages from a conversation
  • Ignore Conversation, which ignores conversations that have drifted off into unproductive territory

My favorite new Outlook feature is Quick Steps, which provides a visual way to construct what are basically multistep macros attached to icons in the ribbon. So, if you want to perform some action on an email message, you can construct a simple Quick Steps action in no time, and organize your email as you see fit. For example, I used Quick Steps to create an Archive It action, as Figure 1 shows. When I click the Archive It icon in the ribbon, the selected message is marked as read and moved to a folder named _Archived Mail.

As with Office 2007, Office 2010 is available in a variety of ways. You can purchase boxed and electronic versions of the individual applications and various product suites. Microsoft also offers a new Product Key Card, which provides only a product key. It's designed for users who purchase new PCs with some version of Office 2010 preinstalled but would like to electronically upgrade to a higher-end version of the suite.

For businesses, there are essentially four versions of the Office 2010 suite that should be of interest:

  • Office Home and Business 2010. This $280 retail version is targeted at home users and small businesses. It includes Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word.
  • Office Standard 2010. This volume-license offering includes Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Word.
  • Office Professional 2010. This $500 retail version includes Access, Publisher, and all the applications in Office Home and Business 2010.
  • Office Professional Plus 2010. This volume-license version includes Communicator, InfoPath, SharePoint Workspace 2010, and all the applications in Office Professional 2010. This version is now the highest end of the Office 2010 suite. (Office 2007 included an Ultimate edition that's no longer offered.)

Note that Microsoft provides both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the Office 2010 suites. The retail versions feature an option to choose one or the other during installation. Unless you're an Excel guru with a need for spreadsheets larger than 2GB, I recommend skipping the 64-bit versions because of incompatibilities with existing Office add-ons.

Office Web Apps

When you initially look at a solution like Google Docs, you immediately see the appeal: It's a light, fast office productivity suite that lives on the web, not your PC, so it doesn't need to be manually updated every month as new security updates roll out.

Then, you actually spend some time with the solution, and the limitations become apparent. Aside from some interesting collaboration features, Google Docs is functionally similar to the version of Office that Microsoft shipped in 1995. (And I'm being kind here.)

Finally, it hits you. The perfect online office suite would look and work just like Office, except that it would live on the web like Google Docs. That's the promise of Office Web Apps, a new member of the Office family. While it would've been far more interesting if Microsoft had delivered on this promise, the reality is that Microsoft has a market to protect. So, instead of being full-featured alternatives to the traditional Office applications, Office Web Apps—which consist of web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—are positioned as accessories or companions. That is, they're not quite the real deal. The missing features and the performance issues inherent with using such heavy software in the cloud make this first Office Web Apps release a bit less interesting than it could have been.

To illustrate the problem, all you need to do is compare the Word 2010 application with its web-based counterpart, Word Web App. The differences are striking. Both feature the standard ribbon UI, but as Figure 2 shows, the Word Web App has just three tabs compared to the default seven tabs in Word 2010. (In Figure 2, "File" is akin to the Microsoft Office button and therefore not considered a tab.) Because the Review tab is gone, there are no reviewing tools at all. And the existing tabs are missing key features. For example, on the Home tab, you lose out on editing features such as Format Painter and the ability to add text effects, add shading, and edit styles.

Similarly, the other Office Web Apps are missing features, rendering them useless for real work. What they're designed for is light editing only and for those rare times when you want to work on a document interactively with another person. The Office Web Apps do a great job of retaining formatting—what Microsoft calls document fidelity—so that even if you need to edit a complex document, you don't need to worry about undoing any previous work.

The Office Web Apps are available through Microsoft's free consumer-oriented Windows Live SkyDrive service or through a SharePoint 2010 site (including SharePoint Foundation 2010) hosted internally or accessed as a hosted service from Microsoft Online. Businesses that purchase a volume license version of Office 2010 get a free license for Office Web Apps.

Office Mobile 2010

Like Office Web Apps, Office Mobile 2010 is designed as a companion to the traditional desktop applications. It consists of Outlook (Email, Calendar, and Contacts), Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for Windows Mobile or Windows Phone smartphones. There's also a version for certain Nokia smartphones.

Office Mobile 2010 has a number of interesting changes, some of which are related to new mobile form factors. Other changes are related to capabilities associated with the PC-based Office suite.

In response to the commonly used multitouch mobile devices, Office Mobile 2010 includes improved gesture and touch support. This lets you more easily navigate through menus and select items in the UI.

Office Mobile 2010 integrates with SharePoint Server 2010 and Information Rights Management (IRM), allowing you to work with corporate documents securely in both online and offline situations. You can also work directly with server-based documents, which is a first. Like its predecessor, Office Mobile 2010 does a reasonable job of rendering complex Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, while retaining the underlying formatting. So, if you edit a document on the phone and access it later on the desktop, the formatting will be retained.

PowerPoint jockeys might appreciate some new functionality that lets you use your Windows Mobile smartphone as a remote control for your PC-based presentations. Aside from the expected navigational controls, it can optionally display your presentation notes on the device screen.

As with the desktop suite, the mobile suite's biggest changes lie in the email application. Outlook Mobile 2010 supports the Conversation View feature (see Figure 3) when used in tandem with Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, providing users with a handy way to manage overpopulated email threads. And smart filtering provides on-the-fly search results as you type.

Ultimately, the problems with Office Mobile are the same as ever: The smartphones' small form factors aren't ideal for reading (let alone editing) documents, and text entry is painful, regardless of the presence of a hardware keyboard. Outlook Mobile is a fine choice for Exchange-based workers, but it still falls short of the elegant iPhone Mail interface. SharePoint customers should investigate this solution, however. The ability to access SharePoint-hosted documents on the go could be a huge advantage.

 Should You Upgrade?

Office 2010 is a large and complex set of products, and your decision about whether to upgrade could be driven in large part by which Office solutions are already in your environment. If you're running the Office 2003 (or earlier) desktop-based applications, I recommend that you upgrade immediately. The productivity benefits of moving to a ribbon-based UI are undeniable, and now that the ribbon is fully customizable and available across the entire product line, there's little reason to hold off. If you're running Office 2007, you face a more difficult decision. If you rely heavily on Outlook, you should consider upgrading solely for the many improvements in that one application.

If you were hoping to save some money on Office licenses by having your least demanding users utilize the free Office Web Apps instead of locally installed applications, I strongly recommend testing that solution first. I suspect few users will find the Office Web Apps adequate. Although performance is an issue, my biggest qualm is that Microsoft appears to have artificially hobbled the functionality of the Office Web Apps, presumably to prevent too many defections to a free product. A better solution would have been a more capable Office Web Apps at rock-bottom pricing, but given Microsoft's conservative cloud moves, that won't likely happen until the next Office revision.

Office Mobile 2010 is what it is: A handy companion for those times when you're stuck in a cab or plane without a laptop and really need to view and possibly minimally edit an important presentation or other document. But I have a hard time imagining anyone purchasing a Windows Mobile smartphone to use Outlook Mobile. There are far better mobile email solutions out there.

Where Office 2010 really shines is when you integrate these many pieces together, preferably with a SharePoint 2010 document repository backend. Combining an Office 2010 suite and SharePoint when you're in the office with Office Web Apps and Office Mobile when you're on the go is hard to beat at any price. Sure, Google may offer free and inexpensive office productivity solutions, but in this case you really do get what you pay for.