Office 2010 beta: Is there enough substance?

Microsoft’s latest Office product is starting to generate buzz. I look at what's different to see if an upgrade is worthwhile

Office 2010 has everyone wondering what Microsoft can offer to make it worthwhile to upgrade to this latest Office suite. Considering the extreme ribbon issue with 2007 (which I happen to love), you might be concerned that the new Office suite would contain yet another mind-blowing visual change. But those fears have been put to rest. The ribbon remains (although I'm sure many of you hoped to see menus again), and in fact, it now reaches out to the rest of the Office suite as opposed to simply being in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the message end of Outlook.

[ See InfoWorld's Office 2010 slideshow and Test Center preview. | Read more about the incredible collaboration features of Office 2010. ]

Let me admit at the outset that I wasn't happy working with the Office 2010 technical preview. That is not to say there won't be some solid changes comes release time -- I hope there will be. In fact, the product engineering team encourages feedback for changes by providing simple Send-A-Smile icons on your task bar: You click the smile or the frown on your task bar to give positive or negative feedback on specific items. I love the idea, as it gives me a place to vent.

So what am I upset about? For starters, the interface feels like a Web interface, and that's not a compliment. It feels clunky, as it has in other recent Microoft products that use it. Office 2007 was sleek; the ribbon worked smoothly. By contrast, Office 2010 operates like it's coming off a Web site, with the same inferior experience you get from Outlook Web Access as opposed to using the desktop client version of Outlook. Alhough both look the same, there is a real negative difference in performance and style when an application isn't installed on your system. But in this case, Office 2010 is installed. I'm sure this is part of Microsoft's plan to be more Web-friendly, but I intend on sending a frown on that one.

However, I will send a smile in regard to the configurable ribbon. You can now create your own ribbon tabs and move items around at will. It's definitely a plus in this latest version.

Back to frowns, I don't like that Microsoft removed the Office button orb. I like orbs, and the orb works smoothly with the Vista/Windows 7 theme. But in Office 2010, it is more of a button/tab selection. And the button opens up to an overly dramatic color scheme that blasts you with blue, green, orange, or whatever color matches the product a bit too harshly.

You might think these are picky items, but what else is left to discuss? Office is such a solid product that there isn't much more Microsoft could offer in changes other than the Office 2007 ribbon improvement. Well, there is one major substantive change: the incredible collaboration features. People can edit the same document at the same time. When two people are working in the same document, each user gets a notification that changes need to be synced between them.

The biggest push, though, is the collaboration and cooperation with SharePoint 2010, which has also been enhanced. A big change is that Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 work across Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari. (Mac Office 2008 also recently got its first native SharePoint support.)

Keep in mind too that Microsoft will offer a free Web version of the Office 2010 suite (although it will omit some features, such as collaboration) in an attempt to compete with Google, Zoho, Apple, and Adobe apps. The Web version of Office 2010 will include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, and run from IE, Forefox, and Safari.

On the client app side, Word 2010 includes a visual navigation pane for quick jumps to different sections. Excel 2010's most interesting feature is called sparklines, a visual snapshot of data; it shows a data trend with conditional formatting and other visual options. But I was most impressed with some of the new PowerPoint features. PowerPoint becomes much more capable thanks to its newfound ability to edit video and images directly. PowerPoint also has a live sharing feature that is great for mini Webcasts.

So what is the verdict? Thumbs-up or thumbs-down? I'm going thumbs-sideways. Hey, don't throw tomatoes at me just yet. It's not that I won't commit: I simply won't praise or persecute a half-baked beta product. It is still cooking, and I am still sending in smiles and frowns. But if I don't smile more with the next release of the Office 2010 beta, my thumbs may move a bit further to the south.

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