By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 13, 2009 at 9:06 am
Today at its Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, Microsoft is announcing that it’s distributing a Technical Preview version of its upcoming Office 2010 suite to tens of thousands of testers. It won’t be a public beta that’s open to everyone who wants a sneak peek; that will come later this year, and the final version of Office 2010 isn’t due until some time during the first half of next year. But for the first time since it demoed some features last October, Microsoft is showing off the new Office and providing more information about its plans. And it’s briefed reporters and provided them with early access to the Technical Preview (including me).
Office 2010 will be the first version of the suite to reflect the era in which upstarts such as Google Docs and Zoho are delivering Office-like features in the browser, and charging little or no money for them. Microsoft’s response to the new challengers is multifaceted. On one hand, it’s introducing the first Web-based versions of the major Office apps. But it’s also stuffing scads of ambitious new features into the traditional versions of the applications, as if to prove its oft-stated (and accurate) contention that local software can still do lots of things that Web services can’t. And it intends to make the traditional and Web versions of the apps into a powerful team that’s more useful and versatile than either standalone software or a purely browser-based suite can be.
Unfortunately, using the current version of the Technical Preview doesn’t tell us enough to come to even a preliminary verdict about whether the final version of Office 2010 will be a no-brainer upgrade. That’s because Microsoft isn’t providing access to the Web applications or an array of new collaboration tools yet–and it’s the online and collaborative stuff that’s the biggest, boldest change planned for Office 2010. Moreover, the Technical Preview, unlike an almost-finished piece of software such as the Windows 7 Release Candidate, is still subject to meaningful revision before it goes out the door. It’s rough around the edges in spots, and Microsoft says it’s still looking for input from testers. So all I can say is that I’m cautiously optimistic about Office 2010 based on what I’ve seen so far.
Okay, that’s not all I can say–read on for my hands-on impressions of the Technical Preview, plus some information on the features that Microsoft isn’t ready to let outsiders try just yet. There’s a lot to chew on, so I’ll focus on the features thagt impress and/or intrigue me most.
By far the most notable thing about Office 2007 was its all-new interface, which (mostly) dumped traditional menus in favor of the Ribbon, a tabbed übertoolbar that aimed to make it easier to find more of Office’s multitude of features. I liked the Ribbon a lot, and Microsoft says it met with approval from a high percentage of Office users. But it was a radical departure from Office 2003 and earlier versions, and not everybody was a fan.
If you didn’t care for the Ribbon in Office 2007, will you find its 2010 incarnation more appealing? Possibly, in part because you might be able to fix things you don’t like about it–Office 2010′s Ribbon, unlike 2007, lets you add, delete, and rearrange features, just as old versions of Office always let you do with menus. You can even create new tabs.
As a Ribbon enthusiast, the main thing I didn’t like about the Office 2007 Ribbon was that there wasn’t enough of it–Outlook’s interface wasn’t completely Ribbonized, and second-string apps such as Visio and Publisher still had old-style menus. In Office 2010, the Ribbon is universal, showing up everywhere you’d expect it to be.
Office 2010′s one major suite-wide interface change is Backstage View, a reworking of multiple fundamental pieces of functionality that’s debuting in all the Office apps. Flashy name aside, it’s the successor to the old File menu, which was the one menu that survived more or less intact in Office 2007, even though it was renamed the Office Button and hung off a little Office logo rather than the word “File.”
Backstage View is where you go to perform tasks such as opening, saving, and printing files, as well as tweaking an app’s options–most of the things you do in Office that don’t involve document editing. It does away with many of the dialog boxes associated with the old File menu in favor of a full-screen window that replaces your document view. What it provides, mostly, is enough elbow room to show you lots of related functionality at once–for instance, the Print section incorporates a preview, so you always see how your settings will affect output without having to detour into a separate Print Preview mode.
Backstage View does indeed streamline some Office processes, although launching it on the two computers I’ve used the Office 2010 Technical Preview feels less swift than simply opening the old File menu; it sometimes takes as much as a second before it responds to my click. (Microsoft may still be optimizing the feature, which was the only aspect of Office that struck me as sluggish.)
Stranger still, Microsoft hasn’t brought the Backstage approach to everything that used to be in the File menu. If you want to open a file, for instance, you enter Backstage View–then immediately leave it for a traditional File Open dialog box. It’s disorienting and inefficient, and feels like discovering that someone’s inexplicably built a room in between your living room and kitchen. I’m not sure why Microsoft hadn’t applied Backstage’s no-dialog-box approach to all of the old File functions, since it would work well for all of them and would be a heck of a lot more seamless than the Technical Preview’s implementation.
After several confusing years of offering online services that bore the Office moniker without actually being online versions of Office, Microsoft is finally putting Office online. Office 2010 will be accompanied by browser-based editions of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word; Microsoft will offer them for free to consumers, and will include them in corporate licenses for the Office 2010 desktop suite. (Unlike Google, Microsoft isn’t going to offer a Web-only suite aimed at businesses–not surprisingly, it contends that businesses still need a full-strength office suite.) Integration between Office’s software and service incarnations will officially be done through Windows Live accounts for consumers and via Microsoft’s SharePoint intranet software for businesses; I assume that some small businesses will opt for the free, simple Windows Live option.
Microsoft’s Web Apps will bring the Ribbon interface to the browser, and will work in multiple browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari) on multiple operating systems (Windows, Mac, and Linux). They’ll let you store files online so they’re available on any computer, but will also let you shuttle documents to and from the full suite. Microsoft says they provide “lightweight editing,” which appears to be shorthand for “not nearly as many features as in the standard versions of the apps, so please continue to pay us for Office.” But judging from the demonstrations the company gave me, they aren’t too basic, either.
Here’s the Excel Web app, which looks a lot like its traditional counterpart and offers relatively fancy features like filtering and conditional formatting.
Google adds features to Google Docs at a fast clip, without warning, and Zoho is even more industrious; Microsoft, however, told me that it intends to treat the Web Apps more like traditional software releases than constantly-evolving Web services. It intends to do relatively few, relatively meaty updates. (It says that’s what businesses prefer.)
A few months ago, an intriguing rumor had it that Microsoft was working on an iPhone edition of Office. If so, it’s not telling anybody. But it is planning to introduce some basic Web-based Office functionality for smartphones–iPhones and otherwise–by introducing the ability to view Office documents stored online in your phone’s browser. You won’t be able to edit them, but it’s a start.
The Web Apps and smartphone document viewers aren’t included in the current version of the Technical Preview, but Microsoft plans to roll out test versions in August. It’s dangerous to form opinions about services that I’ve only seen in brief demos, so stay tuned.