Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers

OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, IBM Lotus Symphony, SoftMaker Office, Corel WordPerfect, and Google Docs challenge the Microsoft juggernaut

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If you avoided Office 2007 because of the radical changes to the interface -- namely, the ribbon that replaced the conventional icon toolbars -- three years' time might change your mind. First, the ribbon's no longer confined to Office only; it shows up in many other programs and isn't as alien as before. Second, Microsoft addressed one major complaint about the ribbon -- that it wasn't customizable -- and made it possible in Office 2010 for end-users to organize the ribbon as freely as they did their legacy toolbars. I'm irked Microsoft didn't make this possible with the ribbon from the start, but at least it's there now.

Finally, the ribbon is now implemented consistently in Office 2010. Whereas Outlook 2007 displayed the ribbon only when editing messages, Outlook 2010 uses the ribbon throughout. (The rest of Outlook has also been streamlined a great deal; the thicket of settings and submenus has been pruned down a bit and made easier to traverse.) One feature that would be hugely useful is a type-to-find function for the ribbon; there is an add-in that accomplishes this, but having it as a native feature would be great.

Aside from the interface changes, Office 2007's other biggest alteration was a new XML-based document format. Office 2010 keeps the new format but expands backward- and cross-compatibility, as well as native handling of OpenDocument Format (ODF) documents -- the .odt, .ods, and .odp formats used by OpenOffice.org. When you open a legacy Word .doc or .rtf file, for instance, the legend "[Compatibility Mode]" appears in the window title. This means any functions not native to that document format are disabled, so edits to the document can be reopened without problems in earlier versions of Office.

Note that ODF documents don't trigger compatibility mode, since Office 2010 claims to have a high degree of compatibility between the two. The problem is "high degree" doesn't always mean perfect compatibility. If you highlight a passage in an ODF document while in Word 2010, OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice recognize the highlighting. But if you highlight in OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice, Word 2010 interprets the highlighting as merely a background color assignment for the selected text.

Exporting to HTML is, sadly, still messy; Word has never been good at exporting simple HTML that preserves only basic markup. Also, exporting to PDF is available natively, but the range of options in Word's PDF export module is very narrow compared to that of OpenOffice.org.

Many other little changes throughout Office 2010 ease daily work. I particularly like the way the "find" function works in Word now, where all the results in a given document are shown in a navigation pane. This makes it far easier to find that one occurrence of a phrase you're looking for. Excel has some nifty new ways to represent and manipulate data: Sparklines, little in-cell charts that usefully display at-a-glance visualizations of data; and data slicers, multiple-choice selectors that help widen or narrow the scope of the data you're looking at. PowerPoint lets you broadcast a presentation across the Web (via Microsoft's PowerPoint Broadcast Service, the use of which comes free with a PowerPoint license) or save a presentation as a video.

One last feature is worth mentioning as a possible future direction for all products in this vein. Office users who also have a SharePoint server can now collaborate in real time on Word, PowerPoint, or Excel documents. Unfortunately, SharePoint is way out of the reach of most casual users. But given how many professional-level features in software generally have percolated down to the end-user level, I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft eventually adds real-time collaboration, perhaps through Windows Live Mesh, as a standard feature.

Among the many new touches in Office 2010 is a much more useful document-search function, which shows results in a separate pane.
Among the many new touches in Office 2010 is a much more useful document-search function, which shows results in a separate pane.
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