I've written a lot about pre-release versions of Office 2010 over the past year and as the countdown began for the final, or RTM ("release to manufacturing") version of the product, I started considering how it is that I would wrap-up my coverage. Office 2010 is a big, sprawling product that encompasses traditional Windows software, servers, hosted and on-premise online services, and mobile software for Windows Phones. Some of this software is quite familiar, particularly the PC-based applications, while others are not. But how does one do justice to such a huge collection of productivity solutions?

I guess you start from the top and work your way down.

Broadly speaking, Office is conservative software. With rare exceptions--the ribbon UI from Office 2007--Microsoft doesn't take a lot of chances here, and it evolves this family of solutions in a fairly predictable, even boring way. That is, of course, by design. But it also means that some solutions--like the Office Web Apps--are half-measures and not the full frontal assaults that some--myself included--may prefer. That said, Office can afford to be conservative--arguably needs be conservative--because it's essential.

For all the inroads Microsoft's various competitors have made in other markets, none have come close to offering a compelling alternative to Office. This too explains the software giant's conservative approach, I think: It just doesn't have to change that rapidly when it already dominates.

 

On the PC, Office reigns supreme, and while companies like IBM and Corel still make office suites of their own (they do, look it up), none of these products works--or sells--like Office. On the web, Google Docs is fairly successful because it's free and it's from Google, but come on: Aside from some collaborative features that few really use, Google Docs isn't even up to Office 95 standards from a functional standpoint. In businesses, SharePoint is the most successful new platform Microsoft's released in the last decade, and even on Windows Mobile, there's Office and then there are the pretenders.

And that's where Office 2010 enters the picture.

Mission statement

Last summer, Microsoft began talking about Office 2010 at a high level, and part of that included the major goals it was hoping to achieve with this release. Those goals haven't changed much since then, aside from some semantics, but what it boils down to is the following: Office as a product family will continue to nail the basics--those core features and functionality we depend on today--while making strides to anticipate the needs of tomorrow.

Look a bit closer and some more specific goals appear. Microsoft is pushing collaboration in Office 2010, big time. It's providing anytime/anywhere access for the first time via its new Office Web Apps and improved Office Mobile. It is supporting rich data types--photos and videos, primarily--for the first time and in very effective fashion. And it is continuing the UI overhaul from Office 2007 with ribbonized applications across the board--even on the web--and a new BackStage interface in the desktop applications.

So there is lots of evolution here, as you'd expect from any Office upgrade. But there are also some pretty exciting changes, too. How (or if) you will benefit from these changes depends not only on which Office solutions you frequent, but how you use those products.

And it will be interesting to see how that changes over time. In Office 2010, for example, OneNote is now part of every version of the suite, so new users will be coming on board. (Microsoft has said that it expects OneNote to one day join Word and Outlook as the most-frequently-used apps in the suite.) And of course Office Web Apps represents a sea change in how users will access Office functionality going forward. If this thing comes together as I expect, the Office 2010 wave of products may eventually be seen as the start of a huge transition to a computing model that is both highly mobile and always connected.

Since the beta

Microsoft released the Office 2010 Beta in November 2009, offering what it described at the time as a feature-complete version of the product. Over 7.5 million people downloaded the public beta, a number that is over three times as large as that for the Office 2007 beta. "This is huge," Chris Bryant, the director of Office product management told me in a recent briefing. "Obviously, there is a lot of interest, a lot of demand."

This level of interest has also translated into some great feedback. Microsoft has received over 650,000 individual pieces of feedback through the "Send a Smile/Send a Frown" system it employed during the beta. "People love the product," Bryant said. "Outside the company, the feedback was predominantly positive, on a 60/40 split." Microsoft employees, apparently, were far more negative.

Some of the features that were particularly well received, Bryant noted, were Backstage, the photo and video capabilities, and the new application splash screens. (I'll touch on the first two later in this review.)

But some negative feedback caused Microsoft to change the product since the beta as well. The most polarizing new feature is the new Conversation View in Outlook. In the beta, this feature was enabled by default, but because more people hated it than loved it, it's disabled by default in the final shipping version of the product. "Many people love it, think it's a useful, modern feature, but a bigger camp absolutely hates it, and told us they were not ready for that kind of change," Bryant told me. "So we adapted to the bigger population. Others can turn it on if they want to use it."

Outlook 2010 Conversation View
Conversation View helps reduce Inbox clutter by organizing messages from the same email thread into a single entry that can be expanded and collapsed.

Another smaller but noteworthy change involved the Share tab in Backstage. Because so many people were confused about that term meant, and didn't realize it was the place to go to save as PDF or XPS, or save to SharePoint or SkyDrive, Microsoft renamed it. And in the final shipping version of Office, it's called Save and Send.

Changes in the Office 2010 Backstage between beta and final release
In the Beta (left) the Send & Save tab in Backstage was called Share. Note, too, that "Save to SkyDrive" was simplfied to "Save to Web."

Microsoft says it made hundreds of other changes since the beta in response to feedback, and of course there was a lot of polish work around final icons, UI cleanup, performance tweaks, and the like.

Next: A look at the Office 2010 suite of applications