Office 2010 Public Beta

In mid-2009, when Microsoft released the first external build of Office 2010, the Technical Preview (TP), it limited distribution to a relatively small group of people. (See my exhaustive, multipart overview of the Office 2010 Tech Preview for details.) But with a public beta release now available, virtually anyone can get their hands on a near-feature-complete version of Microsoft's next office productivity suite. That means this is the perfect time to evaluate what Microsoft's doing with Office 2010 and determine when and how you want to roll it out in your own environments.

Here's what you need to know about the Office 2010 public beta.

It's a family of products

While people tend to think of Office in terms of the best-selling office productivity suite and ancillary applications for the PC, Microsoft Office is much more than that. And with Office 2010, Microsoft is really driving home the notion of integration across all of the products and services that make up this family of solutions. Yes, there is the traditional, PC-based productivity suite, of course, and standalone applications like Project and Visio, and these applications soldier on in Office 2010 with mostly just evolutionary changes. But server products like Exchange 2010, Exchange Online, SharePoint 2010, and SharePoint Online (and, of course, Office Communications Server) also make major marks in the Office 2010 family of products, and unlike the PC applications, these solutions are major updates, with sweeping new areas of functionality. In the Beta time frame, each of these products is available in near feature-complete versions (or, in the case of Exchange, final versions).

Office 2010 also includes the first generation of Microsoft's Office Web Applications, which includes web solutions such as Word Web App, Excel Web App, PowerPoint Web App, and OneNote Web App, and a new generation of Microsoft Office Mobile for Windows Mobile. Neither of these solutions is available in updated form for the Beta, however. (Microsoft is also working on the first version of Office Mobile for Nokia Symbian.)

With regards to the Office Web Apps, Microsoft will offer these solutions in two ways:

Office Web Apps for businesses. Businesses will have access to a feature-complete version of OWA at the Beta, which requires the SharePoint 2010 Beta.

Office Web Apps for consumers. Consumers will not have access to a public beta of OWA, which will eventually be accessible via Windows Live SkyDrive. The current Tech Preview versions of OWA includes feature complete versions of Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App. But Word Web App and OneNote Web App are not feature complete on Windows and won't be made so until the final version ships concurrently with Office 2010 sometime in the first half of 2010.

Big themes

Looking at the big picture, the message for Office 2010 is familiar. Microsoft is focusing on both the fundamentals that we've all come to know and understand--things like copy and paste, email, and superior document fidelity and application integration--as well as what it calls tomorrow's expectations, those things that are somewhat forward-leaning today but could become core expectations for the future. These include the ability to work with high-definition imagery and video, real-time collaboration, and the ability to work anywhere, on any device. (That latter bit refers, of course, to the OWA and Office Mobile solutions.)

One of the bigger changes in the previous version of Office was the integration of the new ribbon user interface into several key Office applications. In Office 2010, the transformation to the ribbon UI is completed, and now it will be available in all Office applications and even on the server; you'll see the ribbon UI in SharePoint 2010, for example. While some say they don't like the ribbon, Microsoft's metrics tell a different story, and this UI revolutions has resulted in huge productivity gains for users. Over 12,000 third party developers have signed on to add this UI to their own applications as a result.

But Office 2010 isn't just about the ribbon. Across various applications, you'll see such changes as a new BackStage environment that replaces the old File menu with a new full-screen interface for accessing all of the options related to the application and the current document. Many Office applications have gotten new image editing tools, and PowerPoint 2010 even provides surprisingly powerful video editing functionality. New OpenType typography (Word, Publisher) provides for much more advanced control over type. And all Office 2010 apps pick up Paste Preview, which seeks to correct the number two most-often-used Office command of all: Undo.

Also, in a first, Office 2010 will come with both 32-bit and 64-bit installers. The 64-bit versions of Office can take advantage of massive amounts of RAM, something that should be of particular interest to Excel gurus. Excel can now handle spreadsheets with over 2 GB of data, for example. For the other Office applications, the 64-bit versions offer few other improvements, however.

From Tech Preview to Beta

Between summer 2009's Office 2010 Tech Preview and the public beta release, Microsoft has refined its Office products and now provides a nearly complete peek at its plans for the final release. As noted previously, most of the traditional Office applications have gotten just small, evolutionary tweaks. But there are some exceptions.

The biggest is Outlook, which receives its biggest update in years. While this is the one application in which the ribbon UI looks somewhat out of place, Outlook 2010 has enough new functionality to keep those of us who live in this application every day quite happy indeed. A new Conversation View automatically organizes email messages by discussion, and many users will find themselves wondering how they previously organized email before. Excellent new tools like Ignore Conversation and Clean Up take the pain out of productivity-killing email threads, and Calendar Preview lets you view meeting participants' schedules in an inline mini-view so you can determine the best time for a scheduled meeting before you send the request off to everyone.

Another new Outlook 2010 feature, Quick Steps, provides a palette of customizable multi-step tasks. With just one click you do such things as mark an email message as read and then archive it in a specific location. It's a huge time saver. And Outlook 2010 also supports the use of multiple Exchange accounts simultaneously.

I'll be looking at each of the main Office 2010 apps in more detail soon.

Office 2010 on the Server

Some of the biggest gains in Office 2010 come from the server-side. Exchange 2010 provides access to some of Outlook's best features--including MailTips, a feature aimed at preventing users from sending sensitive corporate data outside the company--as well as new features around Anywhere Access, unified messaging, email archiving, protection, and compliance and more.

New to the public beta is a first peek at SharePoint 2010, which integrates more tightly into the individual Office 2010 applications and provides a new end-user solution, SharePoint Workspace 2010 (formerly Groove). Workspace can be used in tandem with SharePoint-based sites, but can also be used to create ad-hoc "server-less" SharePoint sites that let users collaborate over peer-to-peer connections. In the server itself, you'll see new developer extensibility capabilities, enhanced Internet site creation functionality (and new product versions aimed at those that wish to use SharePoint for public Internet sites), rich media support, and more.

Final thoughts

While Office 2007 was a revolutionary release, Office 2010 feels more evolutionary to me, with the exception of Outlook and SharePoint. And we won't have a full picture of the Office 2010 family until we can get our hands on updated versions of the Outlook Web Applications and Mobile Office, both of which I'm eager to see. For now, however, the public beta is an excellent chance for businesses and individuals to evaluate Microsoft's next generation productivity solutions. If you're still using Office 2003 or older, you should look seriously at Office 2010. But even those on Office 2007 will find something to like here, especially those who rely on, and live in, Outlook every day. If you are such a person, believe me, I feel your pain.

Continue to Part 2: A Tour of the New User Experiences