By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 10:26 am
At its PDC developer shindig in Los Angeles, Microsoft is announcing that it’s putting Office 2010, which isn’t due to ship until the first half of next year, into a public beta. You can download the whole beta right here, and if you’re an Office user and are curious what’ll be new in Office 2010, the beta is worth a look. (You can install it alongside an existing earlier copy of Office and leap back and forth, although in my tests, my copy of Office 2007 briefly launched its install program whenever I returned to it after having used Office 2010.)
Most of what I said in my earlier looks at the Office 2010 apps and their Web Apps counterparts remains true. There’s lots of worthwhile new stuff throughout the suite–I especially like the new graphics tools, and the video capabilities in PowerPoint. But the most significant new parts of Office–the Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, and the collaborative tools they enable in conjunction with their desktop brethren–are also the hardest to judge.
In fact, unless you’re in a company that tests the new version of Microsoft’s SharePoint server, you can’t test the Web apps at all: Microsoft isn’t releasing beta versions of the consumer-oriented editions of the Web apps, which tie into Windows Live as a document-sharing platform. The company gave journalists (including me) access to a SharePoint server to try the Web apps, but they’re still in a rough state–basic features like creating a new online document still don’t work, and I frequently couldn’t open documents.
For that reason, I still have to give Office Web Apps an Incomplete rather than trying to grade them. But it’s increasingly looking like their initial versions will do a nice job of replicating Office’s Ribbon interface online, and pay much more attention to file-format fidelity than competitors such as Google Docs and Zoho–but that they won’t compete with existing online office suites in terms of available features.
Microsoft has been saying all along that it sees the Office Web Apps as complements to Office in its traditional form rather than a replacement for it. And it clearly meant what it said. Excel is the most ambitious Web app in terms of features (it has conditional formatting, for instance), but I think folks will be disappointed in Word (which doesn’t have graphics tools, at least in this version) and very disappointed in PowerPoint (which is more of a slideshow viewer with rudimentary editing features than a true presentation creator). I haven’t gotten the online version of OneNote to work well enough to form an opinion.
I hope I have this all wrong, and that the Web apps will look better when they ship…
One significant interface tweak in new in this beta compared to the earlier Office Technical Preview, and it amounts to mostly undoing a change that Office 2007 made. That version of the suite hung what used to be the File menu off an Office icon which paralleled the look and feel of the Windows Vista/7 Start button. The earlier Technical Preview of Office 2010 turned this menu into a full-screen section of each Office app called Backstage View, which offers more elbow room for settings and features like Print Preview. And now the Office 2010 beta has given Backstage View a tab that looks like the other ones in the Ribbon interface, and named it…File. Which is the name it had prior to Office 2007, and the moniker Microsoft says it concluded users are most comfortable with.
Here’s how the Feature Formerly Known as the File Menu looks in Office 2007:
And here’s how it looks in the Office 2010 beta:
Aside from the aforementioned issues with the Web apps (and the connectivity Office 2010’s desktop versions offer with them), the beta seems to be pretty smooth and reliable. I plan to use it from here on out when I’m using Office, and will report back here from time to time. If you try the beta, I’d love to know what you think.