Office 2010 looks solid and smooth

Microsoft's technical preview packs a streamlined look and feel, co-authoring and collaboration hooks, and numerous refinements, with the promise of Office Web apps to come

Say what you will about the Windows monopoly, it was Office that made Microsoft's fortune. After all, what's an OS without applications? Over the years, Microsoft evolved a humble word processor and spreadsheet into a tightly integrated suite of groupware and productivity applications. Today you'll scarcely find a business desktop without Microsoft Office installed.

At the same time, competition has never been tougher. Open source alternatives, such as OpenOffice.org, now offer the basic functionality of business productivity software for free. And Web-based productivity software, including Google Apps and Zoho Office, threatens to subvert the traditional desktop software model altogether.

[ A public beta of Office 2010 could begin later this year. In the meantime, brush up on the latest features in InfoWorld's Office 2010 screenshot slideshow. ]

But Microsoft is no slouch. Office 2010, the next version of the software suite, is not expected to arrive until next year, but a technology preview shows it to be another solid effort from the Redmond-based giant. With this release, Microsoft has polished and expanded upon the groundwork it laid with Office 2007, while continuing to add new capabilities, particularly in the area of networked collaboration.

Love it or hate it, the Ribbon is here to stay
When Microsoft first unveiled its revamped UI concept for Office 2007, some hailed it as revolutionary. Others complained that the Ribbon was too big and too awkward, and created an unnecessary learning curve by messing around with menus that worked perfectly fine where they were.

I happen to belong to the first camp, but if you count yourself among the Ribbon haters, you'll definitely be disappointed with Office 2010. This time, the Ribbon is pervasive across all components of the Office suite, including those that lacked it in Office 2007 (such as OneNote, Outlook, and Visio). For those of us who feel more productive with the Ribbon, this consistency is a welcome improvement. Sorry, haters.

The Ribbon has undergone a slight revamp in Office 2010, however, which could help win it some new converts. Gone is the big, orb-shaped button in the upper-left corner of the screen that held (or hid) the File menu options. In its place is a more subdued, rectangular button bearing the Office logo, and this time it's aligned with the rest of the tabs on the Ribbon. There's also a button to minimize the Ribbon, which is sure to please everyone who never figured out that double-clicking would do the job in Office 2007.

Clicking the Office button brings up something that Microsoft is calling the "Backstage view," where you'll find file, print, and collaboration options. This is similar to how it worked in Office 2007, but Backstage view is even less like the traditional File menu than the older version. Instead, you can think of it as a new, explicit context for document operations. Printing, in particular, is much improved, offering a wider range of settings alongside a live preview of your document.

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