Office 2010 sharpens Microsoft's focus on collaboration

Tools such as Outlook's Social Connector among the productivity suite's new features

With its launch last week of Office 2010 – and its concurrent announcements of Office Web Apps and Office Mobile – Microsoft has made it clear that it understands the potential of anywhere, anytime computing. At the same time, the company has shown that it doesn’t intend to give up markets to competitors offering free, if watered-down, Web-based cloud applications. The lab took the new suite for a spin, seeking out and testing all of Office’s new features.

The anchor of Microsoft’s strategy remains its market-dominating desktop Office suite. And with this new 2010 version, Microsoft has enhanced each of the individual applications, more tightly integrated those applications and introduced new tools for collaborative editing.

At the same time, Microsoft has introduced a 64-bit version of the suite. For the time being, of course, only real power users working with gigabyte-sized spreadsheets and database files will see a significant performance gain by moving to 64-bit.

Enhancing the apps

Users won’t find a massive makeover of the major applications in Office 2010. But each of the major applications does offer a handful of new features, along with dozens of enhancements.

A breakdown:

Word 2010 offers perhaps the fewest new features of any of the major applications. But those who work with large documents will welcome an improved navigation pane. The document editor also offers new tools in Word, as well as other Office applications, for customizing fonts. The new utilities include support for ligatures, stylistic sets and controls over text effects such as gradient fills and reflection.

Excel 2010’s most interesting new features are Sparklines – a tool that makes it easy to add visual displays of data to individual cells – and the PowerPivot add-in, which makes it easy to manipulate and analyze large amounts of data.

The biggest new draw in PowerPoint 2010 is the new set of tools for importing and editing audio and video clips right inside presentations. Less dramatic but just as important is a new feature for compression-embedded media files, thus reducing the size of distributed presentations.

The one application that has been pretty thoroughly worked over is Outlook 2010. Most of the attention seems to be on the new Social Connector feature. With the Social Connector, whenever you highlight an e-mail you’ll find an array of related data displayed in a People Pane below the e-mail window. Clicking on various tabs in the People Pane will let you scan other e-mails from that person, along with file attachments, meetings and information from social Web sites. The Social Connector also lets users link to selected social networks. Connectors are currently available for LinkedIn and MySpace, and connectors for Facebook and Windows Live are promised soon. Even more than the Social Connector, we were more impressed with Microsoft’s finally giving Outlook the ability to thread conversations. If you have “Show as Conversations” switched on, Outlook will connect all the messages in a string together, displaying them under the most recent e-mail. I also liked the new Quick Steps tool, which is essentially a macro utility for automating repeated tasks.

Finally, Microsoft has been developing OneNote 2010 into a serious tool for gathering information. Notable new features include linked notes that connect to files in other Office applications and the ability to dock OneNote to screen borders. I was disappointed to find, however, that Outlook 2010 still lacks a tool for automatically cleaning up pages as notes are deleted.

Web-powered collaboration

Although application enhancements are always welcome, it is Office 2010’s new collaboration capabilities that are going to be of greater interest to agencies and departments.

For starters, most of the suite’s applications now allow multiple authors to work simultaneously on a document. Document controls are also provided to allow authors to restrict editing, and document owners can specify whether style formatting is restricted and what users are allowed to perform what kinds of editing tasks. Bear in mind, however, that you must be connected to a SharePoint 2010 server for most coauthoring features to be available.

The process works well enough, but it’s a tad inconvenient that you can’t see other users’ changes in Word or PowerPoint documents until you save the document. And although you can see changes in near real-time using Excel and OneNote, with Excel you have to be using the Office Web Apps version of Excel.

Finally, Microsoft has also begun integrating communication capabilities into Office applications. Word, PowerPoint and Outlook all support presence awareness, alerting you and allowing you to initiate an instant messaging session without leaving the application.

If there’s an obvious problem with Microsoft’s integration of collaboration tools it is that it is as yet incomplete. Coauthoring is not supported by all applications, and presence awareness is available in some applications but not others. Coauthoring involves instant updates in some applications and requires saving the file in others. Finally, editing permissions are not yet harmonized across applications.

Bridging platforms

Major parts of Microsoft’s strategy behind the release of Office 2010 aren’t even in the box.

For starters, at the same time as Microsoft released Office 2010, the company announced, and partially released, Office Web Apps, a suite of free, slimmed-down versions of Excel, Word, OneNote and PowerPoint.

Although Microsoft claims Office Apps was not designed as a response to Google’s free Web applications, the Microsoft offering may keep Office users closer to home when they need to access files from a Web browser. And while the applications in Office Web Apps have a much smaller feature set than their desktop counterparts, much of their interface features and functionality will be familiar to users of the desktop applications. Unfortunately, Word and OneNote are not yet available, but the Web Apps versions of Excel and PowerPoint do, indeed, maintain the look and feel of the desktop versions.

Most agencies and departments will use Office Apps to work with files stored on SharePoint Server, though individuals with Microsoft Live accounts can instead store files on SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage. Twenty-five gigabytes of storage is provided to each user at no charge.

Microsoft has taken care of off-line users of Office 2010 applications via SharePoint Workspace 2010, formerly known as Groove, which stores SharePoint Server 2010 content locally and automatically synchronizes with server-based files when a connection is available. The software provides document-locking to prevent conflicts with other users. SharePoint workspaces can synchronize only with sites running on Microsoft SharePoint 2010, SharePoint Foundation 2010, or SharePoint Online servers.

Finally, Microsoft provides Office functionality to cell phone users via Office Mobile 2010. Office Mobile 2010, which Microsoft says will ship when Office 2010 is available in the retail market, allows file viewing and editing of Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote and SharePoint files. You can also copy and paste across programs and e-mail or save back to your SharePoint Server. Unfortunately, the suite requires the Windows Mobile 6.5 or above operating system, so users of BlackBerrys are out of luck.

Recognizing that moving documents across multiple platforms also increases the risks of malware, Microsoft has improved file security by automatically opening documents downloaded from the Web in Protected View, which lets you view but not edit the document. If you trust the document once you take a look at it, a single mouse click is all it takes to enable editing.

Once you’ve taken a document out of Protected View, Office will mark it as trusted and you won’t have to enable editing again.

Each application in the suite also includes a Trust Center, a centralized location for configuring security measures specific to that application.

Making the move

According to Microsoft, the move to Office 2010 should be significantly easier for federal agencies and departments than was the case with earlier versions.

To being with, said David Ouart, a business productivity specialist for Microsoft’s federal division, enterprise resource and training tools for Office 2010 are not only improved, the company promises they will be available sooner than was the case with Office 2007.

“We know that with 2007 we were a little late to the game on training and documentation,” said Ouart. “We did a lot of work on 2010 on having the documentation ready at the same time as we released to manufacturing. For example, the Office 2010 Resource Kit is done. We’ve done a lot of work around readiness and training. There’s a lot more for training and readiness coming out of the gate than we ever did before. That’s really important for our federal customers.”

Ouart also sees two other pulls for federal customers – the additions of OneNote and SharePoint Workspace.

Ouart said Microsoft expects one of the biggest drivers to Office 2010 in the federal sector to be SharePoint Server 2010. SharePoint Server 2007 has experienced increasing adoption in the federal sector and Ouart says federal clients have responded very positively to SharePoint 2010. “I think we’re going to see the uptake of SharePoint 2010 be very fast, and that’s going to help pull Office 2010 along with it,” Ouart said. He noted that “a lot of the cool features in Office 2010 [require] SharePoint 2010 on the back end.”

Of course, requiring customers to purchase and implement a separate product to realize the full benefits of Office 2010 may also be seen by some as a deterrent.

The bottom line: Microsoft has made clear with Office 2010 that while it is not about to abandon the desktop as the primary locus of power productivity computing. It is committed to making the desktop suite and its documents work smoothly with other platforms, including the Web and cell phones. The collaborations tools and the integration of platforms offered by Office 2010 – combined with Office Web Apps, Office Mobile and SharePoint – are impressive, though not yet seamless.

Prices for Office 2010 range from $149 for the Home and Student edition to $499 for Professional. There is volumne licensing avalable for some editions and Key Card discounts for some editions that come with pre-loaded suites on new PCs. A list of system specifications and prices is here.


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