Office 2010 makes a splashy (but incomplete) public debut

Can Microsoft hit back-to-back home runs? The Office team has to be feeling some heat as they hang around the on-deck circle waiting for Windows 7 to release to manufacturing later this month. With today's announcement of a Technical Preview release of Office 2010 at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, it's pretty clear that Microsoft is taking a mighty cut. But only time will tell whether they've crushed it.

Can Microsoft hit back-to-back home runs?

The Office team has to be feeling some heat as they hang around the on-deck circle waiting for Windows 7 to release to manufacturing (in “late July,” according to a press release last week). With today’s announcement of a Technical Preview release of Office 2010 at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, it’s pretty clear that Microsoft is taking a mighty cut. But only time will tell whether they’ve crushed it.

My colleague Mary-Jo Foley has a good overview of today’s announcement. I’ve had a copy of the Technical Preview release of Office 2010 running here for about a week, so I can offer some very tentative first impressions (and an image gallery) based on my hands-on experience.

See Office 2010 in action in this screenshot gallery.

But before I get to those details, here’s the view from the top of the stands:

  • This is not a public release. According to Microsoft, “tens of thousands of people will be invited to test Office and Visio as part of the Technical Preview program.” It's already widely available via the usual unofficial file-sharing sites, but you won’t be able to download the code from Microsoft unless you’ve been accepted into the testing ranks.
  • This release is a milestone, but it’s far from feature complete. In a briefing last week, Office Group Product Manager Chris Bryant candidly acknowledged, “Some things don't work as expected at this point.” This release, he told me, is “primarily designed for the engineering team to get lots of feedback.”
  • It’s not ready for prime time yet. I can confirm, from personal experience, that this is not code you’ll want to run on a production machine. If you’ve grown accustomed to running the Windows 7 Beta and you’re tempted to try this on a production machine, think twice. And then think again. I like what I’ve seen so far, but it’s staying on a test box until the official beta appears in a few months.
  • The most interesting pieces aren’t out yet. I had a chance to see a demo of the new suite of Web-based Office applications (using Firefox and Safari, just to emphasize their compatibility). The demo was impressive, with Word, PowerPoint, and Excel behaving in a browser just as they do in a stand-alone app. (OneNote support is due in the final release as well.) However, none of those pieces are available for review yet, so I have no hands-on experience to report.

One smart decision the Office team made is to trim the number of Office editions. Currently, Office 2007 is available in a mind-boggling eight editions. For Office 2010, Microsoft plans to cut the Ultimate and Enterprise editions as well as the OEM-only Basic edition. That will reduce the total number of Office editions to five, two for enterprise customers and three for home and small business users. The new Office lineup, from bottom to top, goes like this:

  • Office Home and Student edition includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote.
  • Office Home and Business edition replaces the previous Office Small Business edition. It includes all the programs from the Home and Student edition and adds Outlook.
  • Office Standard is the entry-level enterprise edition; it includes the programs from the Home and Business edition and adds Publisher
  • Office Professional continues to be the high-end package for consumers and small businesses. It includes the programs in Standard edition and adds the Access database management program.
  • Office Professional Plus is the high-end enterprise offering, adding SharePoint Workspace (formerly Groove Workspace) and InfoPath.

What can you expect from Office 2010? Based on my limited testing so far, I can point to three major areas of improvement:

A lot of what’s new is aimed at enhancing usability. The Ribbon interface is now part of every Office program, including Outlook, Publisher, and OneNote, which used the old-style menu/toolbar combos in Office 2007. The Ribbon is far more customizable in Office 2010 as well, offering the capability to add and remove buttons and even create your own custom tabs. And a new feaqtuer called Backstage mode is designed to replace many previously complex dialog boxes.

Speaking of OneNote, it gets elevated to a starring role in this release—and it’s about time. In Office 2007, OneNote was part of the entry-level $150 Home and Student edition and the $680 Ultimate edition but was left out of every edition in between. For 2010, Microsoft is bullish enough on OneNote to make it a part of every edition. As Microsoft’s Bryant told me, “We think people will have OneNote open all the time just like they do with Outlook.”

And finally, there’s a slew of new collaboration features I couldn’t test easily. Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote all offer co-authoring features where two or more people can work on a project simultaneously and see their changes in real-time. There are also some slick-looking mail management features in Outlook, including the capability to trim repetitive message text from long e-mail threads and to “ignore” threads where you’re on the CC list but not really involved.

Microsoft has previously announced that a public beta release of Office 2010 will be available later this year, with the final release due in the first half of 2010.

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