Office 2010 Public Beta
Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint

I was on a conference call with some other tech analysts recently and the question came up, why would customers stick with Microsoft Office when there are so many cheap or free alternatives available? My answer was simple. None of these alternatives have ever made any meaningful inroads against Microsoft Office for one simple reason: They're not Office. Knowing laughter ensued. There is just something indelibly "Office" about Office. And it's a quality the competition just can't match.

Case in point: When Microsoft switched to the ribbon user interface in Office 2007, it managed to maintain that elusive quality that makes Office so well-loved. Meanwhile, competing office productivity suites--even those that have adopted their own, not-quite-right ribbon UIs, like Corel WordPerfect--just don't feel right. And the web-based stuff, especially the awful Google Docs, is even further off. It's just not the same.

As for Office itself, it just keeps getting better. Here's a peek at some new features in the Office applications I use the most.


Word 2010

Given my profession, you won't be surprised to discover that Word is my most frequently-used Office application and, as it turns out, my most frequently-used non-browser application overall. But it's not just me: According to Microsoft, Word is the most popular

While some Office 2010 applications have received a major makeover--the most obvious being Outlook, which I'll discuss in a just a bit--Microsoft Word sees more of an evolutionary update in this release. It picks up the general look and feel niceties of the new ribbon, BackStage, and so on. But there are few major new features. As a writer, and someone who spends much time in Word, I'm OK with this: Word is a mature product, and let's face it, there's only so much you can do to improve a word processor these days. That said, there are a couple of interesting new--and unique to Word--features this time around. As has always been the case with new Office versions, I find myself needing to upgrade simply because of these improvements, small as they may sometimes seem. But when you rely on a tool like this as I do, it's absolutely worth it.

Navigation pane

While previous versions of Word had a hierarchical Document Map, the navigation pane in Word 2010 is much nicer, with large, soft buttons representing each heading level. This is a great way to navigate around really large, complex documents, such as the chapters from Windows 7 Secrets. I don't use it day to day, but it was a big help in the latter stages of the creation of my latest book.

In addition to the default headings view, the Navigation pane also provides two more views, a less useful page view (which presents thumbnail icons of each page in the document) and a search results view, which works with the Find command described below.

Find

This is, by far, the most welcome addition to Word 2010. As in previous versions of Word (and other Office applications), the Find command allows you to search for text within the current document. (I typically use CTRL + F but you can also access this command via a Find button on the Home tab of the Word ribbon.) But whereas previous versions of Word would trigger an annoying pop-up dialog that could often obscure the underlying text, Word 2010 does it right. Now, a list of search results appears in the navigation pane, next to the document. You can navigate through the list of results as you would with a browser "find in page" feature, and each result is highlighted, both in the text of the document and in the blurbs that appear in the navigation pane. Nice!

Integrated screen capture

Word 2010 supports an interesting new screen capture feature, though it's better suited for capturing individual windows than the entire screen. To perform a screen capture, just select Insert and then Screenshot; the gallery will expand to show you the available windows to capture. You can also choose Screen Clipping, which will let you capture the entire screen or just the part you want. (A dedicated "Screen" option would be easier, in my opinion.)

Either way, once you've captured a window or clipping, Word 2010's picture editing tools appear in the Picture Tools tab (also new and improved in this version). These tools let you add a host of effects, borders, and the like.

Outlook 2010

Outlook is the most substantially updated application in the Office 2010 suite, but I wish Microsoft had simply started over from scratch with this bloated beast of a program. I'm no fan, is what I'm trying to say, but on the other hand Microsoft has added a number of new and useful features to this popular program. And like it or not, I have to use it: My workplace uses Exchange Server. Here are some of the better new features in this version.

Conversation View

This one actually debuted previously, but it's now the default view style for email and a huge improvement, I think, over the previous default, which amounted to "first in, last out." Conversation View basically organizes your inbox by conversation, which cuts down on the apparent number of emails you have to deal with and helps you better manage your inbox. Which, let's face it, is probably overflowing as it is.

Ignore Conversation

The only thing better than auto-categorizing and managing email by conversation is ignoring conversations. You've seen these email threads, where a joke gets out of control or an important work related discussion goes wildly off track as two or more of the recipients discuss something completely unrelated. Before Outlook 2010, you were pretty much on your own. But with a new feature called Ignore Conversation, you can end the inanity: Just select the errant conversation, then click Clean Up Conversation and then Ignore Conversation in the ribbon.

Quick Steps

Essentially a macro feature, Quick Steps lets you save a sequence of actions into a unit that can be accessed via a single icon click. These bundled actions, called Quick Steps, are available via a ribbon group, and while there are some nice built-in Quick Steps, you can also create your own. This is one Outlook 2010 feature I actually use pretty regularly, because it lets me mimic the way I organize my server-side Gmail by clicking an "archive" icon that will save email but get it out of the inbox. (And since it's customizable, I can be sure that it archives to the right place.)

Social Connector

This feature was only partially fleshed out at the Office 2010 Reviewers Workshop I attended, but it offers an interesting glimpse at how Microsoft intends to integrate its legacy email application with current, trendy new technologies like social networks. What it basically does is add a new pane, called the People pane, to the already crowded Outlook UI. Through this pane, which sits under the Reading pane, you can keep up with your friends and family via various social networks like Facebook and Twitter. And because it's extensible, access to more networks can and will be added all the time. (I've not tested this one thoroughly, but will be looking at it more between now and the final release.)

PowerPoint 2010

PowerPoint qualifies as one of the more senior members of the Office family, but unlike with other old timers like Word, recent competition (from Apple's Keynote, in this case) has shown that there is indeed a number of ways in which a presentation application can improve. On that note, PowerPoint 2010 is all about catching up, and it appears to do so nicely while adding some unique new capabilities of its own. Here are some of the standout new features that go beyond the expected new transitions, templates, and whatnot.

Broadcast Slide Show

One of the dumbest live demos I've ever seen involved some previous version of Office, where a group of Microsofties stepped through a totally unbelievable storyline in which they needed to use every single application in the Office suite to get a project done. Jump ahead several years and we find one of the most effective live demos I've ever seen: This one involved PowerPoint's new Broadcast Slide Show feature, and Microsoft used it at the Office 2010 Reviewers Workshop to share the keynote presentation with reviewers. It was an excellent way to highlight this incredibly useful feature, which lets a presenter broadcast slideshows over the Internet; viewers can use a regular web browser.

Video formatting and inline editing

While PowerPoint has always offered very basic video embedding functionality, PowerPoint 2010 takes this feature to 11 by adding incredible video formatting and--get this--inline video editing. If you need to work with video in your presentations, this feature is like jumping from the Dark Ages into the nuclear age in one step, and it's actually pretty incredible stuff. In fact, the video editing features are almost on par with those in Windows Live Movie Maker. There's a lot here, and it warrants more attention, including a related feature that lets you make a video of a presentation.

More to come...

There's a lot more to say about the Office 2010 Public Beta, but this is it for now. In the next part of this review, I'll examine the Office Web Applications and see how they've improved since the initial tech preview.