With four out of five businesses using some version of Microsoft Office and 64 per cent on the current version (Office 2007) Microsoft's cash cow is in the clover.
With the release of a shiny new version, Office 2010, the pasture becomes even greener. Office 2010 extends changes found in Office 2007, adds a few more goodies, and rejigs the suite's product mix. And, it marks the advent of Office Web Apps, a free online companion to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that will allow users to view, edit and share their Office 2010 documents stored on Windows Live or SharePoint 2010 from a Web browser. The Web Apps don't provide the full functionality of the desktop versions, but they should be handy complements. All components of Web Apps aren't yet available, however, watch for them to arrive as the year progresses.
The core suite, dubbed Microsoft Office Home and Student, now consists of the old standbys of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, plus OneNote, a notebook application that surfaced a couple of versions ago targeting the Tablet PC. Now it is finally being given the exposure it deserves as a full member of the Office suite - and no, you don't need a Tablet PC to get good use out of it.
Outlook, the e-mail, calendar and contact management application that is a member of all versions except the aforementioned core suite, has had a major facelift, and the other apps are enhanced to varying extents as well.
The suite has had some unifying overall modifications that Office 2007 users in particular will appreciate. The Microsoft Office Fluent user interface, better known as the Ribbon, is now woven into every application. In Office 2007, it only appears in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Access, and some parts of Outlook. For Office 2003 users, it's brand new, and getting used to it may be a struggle at first, but the rationale behind it makes a lot of sense: when the old familiar menu and submenu structure was designed, there were relatively few commands so navigation was simple. Now, with literally hundreds of options in every program, it takes too many clicks to perform all but the simplest tasks, and many users don't use some features because they have no idea they're even present in the product.
Read the rest of the Office 2010 Review package
The Ribbon was created to make it easier to find those elusive features. In its original incarnation, it was static, but it has been tweaked in Office 2010 to allow users to customize it. They can now rearrange tabs and add or remove selections to suit the way they work. And for those who'd like some help fathoming the new UI (or who are just after a little productive entertainment), Microsoft Office Labs has developed Ribbon Hero, a game to help boost Office skills and knowledge of Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2007 and 2010.
Another bit of confusion in Office 2007 that's been eliminated is the Office orb, that circular logo that sits where the old File menu used to be and performs much the same function -- if people could figure out that it was, indeed, a button and not just a pretty graphic. Office 2010 has a more mundane but more comprehensible substitute: a File tab that opens a new interface called Backstage View.
Backstage View pulls together options from the old File menu as well as things like the ever-popular (and now non-existent) Options menu; its contents differ depending on what makes sense in each application. And, as an added bonus, developers can create add-ins for Backstage, allowing things like custom downloads directly into an application.
Copy and paste has also seen some work. Microsoft has discovered through its instrumentation that Undo follows Paste in many cases because the result is not what the user expected, so it now offers Paste Preview. It lets you choose whether to keep source formatting, merge source formatting with the destination, or paste text only, and as you hover the cursor over each option, you see the result.
Image handling is much better too. Click on an image, and a Picture Tools tab appears that lets you position the image, correct the colour, add artistic effects, remove the background and otherwise manipulate the look. And, as with other formatting options, if you hover over a selection, you'll see a preview of the result. Microsoft seems to be on a campaign to banish Undo from our vocabulary.
A less visible change in Office 2010, for Office 2003 users in particular, is in file formats. By default, Office 2010 uses the XML-based formats it introduced in Office 2007. OneNote 2010's format even differs from that of OneNote 2007. You can still read and write the older formats, of course.
With increasing use of the Internet comes the risk that downloaded files come complete with malware. To mitigate this risk, Microsoft released the MOICE (Microsoft Office Isolated Converter Environment) with Office 2007, which took binary file formats and converted them into the new XML format and back in a sandboxed environment (a "sandbox" is a program area that is isolated from the rest of the PC's operating system, so it can't affect the host machine) in the hope of stripping nastiness from the file. However, that process was sometimes slow, and sometimes unreliable, so in Office 2010 Microsoft has introduced the Protected View.
Any file from a potentially risky location is automatically opened in Protected View, a read-only, sandboxed view that prevents any code in the document from affecting the PC. The user must click the "Enable Editing" button at the top of the screen to work with the file. That allows you to read files from potentially suspect sources without risking infecting your machine with malware.
One thing I detest about the new Office is the activation requirements. Like Windows 7, Office 2010 must regularly commune with a key management server, either at Microsoft or on an enterprise network, and re-authenticate itself to stay active. To their credit, it's totally transparent as long as you have connectivity, but this whole practice by software vendors (in fairness, not just Microsoft) of assuming that all users are guilty of piracy until they repeatedly prove themselves innocent annoys me.
On the whole, however, I do like Office 2010. Including OneNote in the core suite is a long-overdue move, and the Outlook revamp adds valuable features and a more consistent user interface.
This is the first of a week-long five-part review package of Office 2010.
Retail Editions and Canadian Pricing
Unfortunately, there's no upgrade pricing available for users of previous versions of Office. However, Microsoft has introduced a new twist that saves a few dollars: the Product Key Card. The Product Key Card is a single license card (with no DVD media) that will be sold at major electronic retail outlets. The key number on the card will unlock Office 2010 software that has been pre-loaded by many PC manufacturers on new machines, and enables the use of one of the three full versions of Microsoft Office available at retail: Office Home & Student 2010, Office Home & Business 2010, or Office Professional 2010.
Office Home and Student: Full Package Price $159.99, Product Key Card $129.99. Includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
Office Home and Business: Full Package Price $349.99, Product Key Card $249.00. Includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook
Office Professional: Full Package Price $669.00, Product Key Card $469.00. Includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and Premium Support
Volume licensing customers can also purchase a version containing SharePoint Workspace (formerly Groove, a peer-to-peer collaboration tool), Communicate and InfoPath (forms generation and deployment).