Office 2010's Technical Preview has been around for a few months now. Like most early code releases it was buggy and missing features, but it certainly showed promise. Microsoft realised that a productivity suite needed collaboration tools, and did a lot of good work adding them to the new version of Office. But Office 2010 has to win over users who responded negatively to the arrival of the ribbon user interface in Office 2007. With the public beta, Microsoft is ready to see how the world reacts to another new-look Office.
If you've been using the Technical Preview, then the beta is a must-have update. Many of the more obvious bugs have been fixed, and performance has been given a definite boost. There aren't many new features, but the user interface has had a subtle makeover that goes a long way to improving usability. Office 2010 also gets new program icons, more suited to the Windows 7 taskbar, with Adobe-style letters to distinguish O for Outlook from W for Word.
Cleaning up the UI
First things first: the ribbon is here to stay. Even so, it's clear that Microsoft is working hard to improve the ribbon user experience, tuning the look and feel and replacing the confusing Office orb. The Technical Preview was a big step forward, but the beta ups the ante with a neutral grey (Microsoft calls it 'silver') theme and the return of the old favourite File to the ribbon tabs. The new theme should make it easier to work with colour documents, and less obvious boundaries between groups of controls certainly make it easier to find the icons you're looking for — a simple change that makes working with the ribbon seem faster.
The latest iteration of Office's ribbon interface is clearer and easier to use, with fewer distracting borders and a smoother, more neutral colour scheme. For more Office 2010 Beta images, see our screenshot gallery.
One of the biggest changes in the Technical Preview was the arrival of the Backstage. Touted by Microsoft as the place to do things with documents, rather than to them, the BackStage brings together tools for saving, sharing and printing documents. Clicking on the colour-coded File tab opens BackStage, where you'll find shortcuts to common tasks, plus tools for handling sharing and collaboration. There are a lot of Backstage features that light up with SharePoint 2010 (especially around managing metadata and handling content management), and developers can also add their own applications using an upcoming version of Visual Studio Tools for Office.
Improving the applications
Drilling down into the applications, it's clear that Microsoft is taking the same approach with Office 2010 as it did with Windows 7, getting it feature complete as soon as possible and then using the beta cycle to fine-tune things and remove bugs. As a result you'll find there are few obvious changes between the Technical Preview and the beta. We found that two major bugs were fixed: connections to multiple Exchange accounts in Outlook 2007 no longer require multiple log-in attempts, and content from a UNC share is no longer being treated as if it was being opened from the internet.
The Technical Preview introduced several new technologies designed to improve security in Office 2010. Hackers are increasingly targeting applications rather than the underlying OS, and the Office team is using threat modelling and fuzzing techniques to harden the 'attack surface' of the Office apps and deal with specific attacks quicker (by providing specific mitigations as a small update). The security feature you'll notice most is Protected View, which opens documents detected as having come from the internet (or simply outside your company) in a sandboxed view-only mode running in a separate process with no access to the network or other system resources. Protected View applies to all document types, because they're all vulnerable to attack.
There were several issues with this in the Technical Preview, including a bug concerning the way Windows reports whether a UNC name refers to an internet or intranet location. This could result in it classifying a Windows Server file share as an unsafe internet location. This has been fixed in the beta, and in our tests it correctly detected files downloaded or received by email — even if they were downloaded years before you installed Office 2010. There are management options for controlling what files this applies to by Group Policy. In the beta you can also now search in the document — in Word, sandboxed documents open the navigation pane automatically to ensure you know you can search. You can't print in Protected View, but you can enable printing from Backstage. This has the same effect as enabling editing; the next time you open the document you won't get a warning, but it saves you from having to close Backstage, enable editing and then open it again.
Collaborating and connecting: SharePoint 2010 and Office
Microsoft has done a lot of fine tuning between the Technical Preview and the beta, but it's the arrival of SharePoint 2010 that has made the biggest difference. With editing in the Word and OneNote Web Apps, you can now start to experiment with Office's new collaboration features. Although they work, there are plenty of issues, and we're still at a loss to understand why Microsoft doesn't mark the sections being co-authored in Excel and OneNote, and why Microsoft has removed the peer-to-peer sharing tools from OneNote that made it easy to co-author documents without a server. At the moment Office 2010 is failing to deliver on Microsoft's co-authoring promise, and an effective experience seems as far away as ever.
If you're using Office to connect users with line-of-business applications, you'll appreciate SharePoint 2010's Business Connectivity Services, as it now links applications and databases to programs like Outlook and Access. Access 2010's basic business intelligence tools make it useful for power users who don't need the in-depth analytics of Excel 2010. If you need to work with a lot of data and Excel, then the new PowerPivot plug-in (also available server-side for SharePoint 2010) helps you navigate and filter large amounts of data.
Outlook gets social
Outlook 2010 is the one application to get a major new feature, building on Outlook 2007's search tools to turn your email into its very own social network. The new Social Connector pane sits under the Outlook Reading pane and brings in details of all the people who are part of a message — showing previous messages, meetings and files you've exchanged. You can also pull in information from other social networks. The beta currently works with SharePoint 2010 to use information from its personal pages, but there will be an API for connections to non-Microsoft services — we're expecting social connectors for the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn very quickly.
Outlook 2010's new Social Connector opens up your email network, showing emails you've exchanged with people, files you've shared and meetings you've had. It'll even bring in information from other social networks.
There are also new GPU-powered transitions in PowerPoint 2010. Microsoft has been losing mindshare to Apple's Keynote recently — mainly due to its design focus and its smooth animations and transitions. It's clear that Microsoft is responding to this with PowerPoint 2010. But is it enough? Certainly the improved transitions make it more pleasing on the eye, while the embedded video tools fix a longstanding issue with embedded media in presentations.
Microsoft is using the beta to unveil the full lineup of Office 2010 versions. As always, there will be standalone versions of the individual applications, but most users purchase the Office suite. There's been some simplification here, with five different versions of the suite — three for consumers and two for businesses with enterprise license agreements. Consumers and small businesses can choose between Home and Student, the new Home and Business, and Professional. Larger businesses get access to Standard and Professional Plus. OneNote is in every package, and Outlook is in everything apart from Home and Student.
* Volume licensing only
In addition to the five main versions, there's also a new cut-down edition, Office Starter, which has versions of Word and Excel with fewer features than the full packages. This is being used as an advertising-supported replacement for Microsoft Works.
All Wrapped Up
Office 2010 is shaping up to be an important release. Just as Windows 7 refined Vista, so Office 2010 refines Office 2007, building on Microsoft's telemetry and user research to deliver a fine-tuned and responsive user interface, along with new collaboration features aimed at distributed workforces. It's not perfect, and there are still plenty of niggles — but there's some six months to go before launch, giving Microsoft time to respond to the feedback that millions of beta copies will deliver.