Part 1: Introduction

It's a challenge anyone in the movie industry can probably relate to: How do you follow-up an absolute, no-holds-barred, smash? And that issue, too, is most likely the impetus behind Microsoft's surprisingly funny Office 2010: The Movie promotion, in which the company is touting its upcoming office productivity suite as if it were a Hollywood summer blockbuster. Office 2010, following hot on the heels of Office 2007 (see my review), has a lot to live up to. And now that we've pretty much gotten over the innovative but jarring ribbon UI--it's been formally added to virtually all Office applications and services now--there's only one question remaining, and in the context of Microsoft Office, it's sort of a classic: How, exactly, do you improve on a product line that is as mature and full-featured as Office?

The statistics on Microsoft Office are staggering. The suite has a combined 500 million active users worldwide, making it one of the most often-used software products on earth. Every day, tens of millions of people boot up their PCs, not to live in Windows per se, but to live in the core Office applications like Word, Excel, and Outlook. And we're not talking about unattended bits sitting on a hard drive. This is live code that drives productivity, work days, and entire economies, and it does so every single day.

So, once again, the question emerges. How does Microsoft improve something like Office? What can it possibly do to make an update to such a long-lived product line interesting and useful enough to customers that they'll be compelled to upgrade?

Some of the thinking this time around is simple evolution. There are apps in the traditional Office suite that needed to be moved over to the ribbon UI, so that was done. There was plenty of fit and finish work to do across the ribbon since, let's face, last time around was the first-generation version of that technology. And of course, as with any software update, there are always small tweaks and improvements to be made.

But Office isn't just end-user applications. It also consists of mobile applications, servers, and, in this wave, a set of Office Web Applications that will provide users with a free, hosted Office environment that they can access from any PC, using a web browser. With Office 2010, more than ever before, Office is an integrated family of products and services, spanning the PC desktop, (Windows Mobile-based) mobile devices, and, for the first time, the web.

That's the plan at least. This week, Microsoft is releasing the first major public milestone for Office 2010, the so-called Technical Preview, a pre-beta version of the traditional Office suite as well as some of the ancillary end-user applications, like Visio. Coming at a later date will be updated versions of the Office servers, like SharePoint, as well as the Office Web Applications. In this special report, I'll focus largely on what's available now, but I'll also take a peek at some of the Office 2010 technologies you'll see in the months ahead.

Continue with Part 2, Expanding and Improving Office...