Connectivity to social networking applications leads the improvements in Microsoft’s upcoming productivity suite

Office 2010 beta debuts major features

The just-released Office 2010 beta shows Microsoft Corp.’s vision for integrating Office with the greater Internet. Most notably, it introduces a potentially powerful Outlook feature that can combine your e-mail with social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Also on display is the Web-based version of Office, another way Microsoft is trying to make sure that Office is no longer the island it has been for too long. However, that is marred somewhat by the lack of some important features in the Web-based version of Office, such as the ability to create charts in Excel.

Like the previously released technical preview, the beta also incrementally improves Microsoft’s best-selling Office suite, putting the Ribbon at center stage as the default interface for all Office applications, powering up individual apps with tools such as built-in video editing, and including a variety of productivity enhancers, such as a better paste operation.

Outlook, meet Facebook

One of the most significant changes to Office is not an interface change, but a feature that could dramatically improve the way people connect with others and share information. Called Outlook Social Connector, the new feature has a twofold purpose: to track all of your e-mail and other history with each specific contact, and to extend Outlook’s reach beyond Office to the Internet and social networking sites.

When you’re reading an e-mail message to or from someone, the Connector appears at the bottom of your message in its own separate pane. The pane displays a history of your communications with that person in Outlook — e-mail messages, attachments exchanged, meetings scheduled in Outlook, and so on. You can see all these items in one big list or click a tab to view just one type — for example, just e-mails you’ve exchanged with that contact — then click an item to go directly to it.

This can be an exceptionally powerful tool for managing information and handling e-mail overload. How many times have you wanted to find an attachment you’ve exchanged with someone, or wanted to read a previous e-mail message? Now, instead of having to search through Outlook to find it, it’s right there in front of you. Choose an old message, an attachment or a meeting from the list, and you go to it right away. It’s that simple.

That by itself would make the Social Connector a very useful tool, but potentially even more powerful is its promised ability to automatically exchange information with social networking sites, with SharePoint servers, and perhaps with new services that don’t yet exist. In order for this kind of communication to take place, companies will have to write individual connectors that link their sites to the Outlook Social Connector. Because Office 2010 is just getting into beta, those connectors have not yet been written, with the exception of one that Microsoft wrote for SharePoint.

When such connectors are available, the Outlook Social Connector could, for example, automatically grab new contact information for your Outlook contacts from social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and update them in Outlook, as well as import pictures of the contacts from those sites and display them in Outlook.

In addition, the Outlook Social Connector could display any status updates that someone has made on social networking sites — for example, if they have a new job, have posted new photos, and so on. That means that you will be able to participate with those social networking sites in many ways without leaving Outlook. Outlook could start to become the center of your social networking — no need to visit multiple sites, because the information could be shipped straight to Outlook without your intervention.

It’s not clear yet whether this will work the other way around — that is, whether you’ll be able to post an update in Outlook and have it automatically sent to your social networking sites — because the individual connectors haven’t yet been built. My guess is that it will be possible, but we won’t know until then.

Also potentially useful is an Activities RSS feed piped into the Social Connector. If you’ve included a URL for a contact’s blog in your Outlook contact record for that person, the Connector will tell you whenever there’s a new blog post. (Note, however, that I wasn’t able to get this feature to work in the beta.) In addition, it will show you when a contact has updated their SharePoint My Site, which is a kind of personal portal or home page people have in SharePoint.

But at this point these are all just promises. In order for these features to work, the social networks (or third-party developers) will have to create the connectors. Once they do, you’ll have to install them by clicking the + button in the Social Connector and following installation instructions. However, if the feature works as promised — and it would be very surprising if the most popular social networking sites didn’t release connectors — Outlook will become more powerful by a significant magnitude.

Some of these features may sound familiar to people who use the Xobni add-in for Outlook, because Xobni offers tools for viewing all communications with a contact. The add-in also does some of these types of things with social networking sites, although the integration with social networking sites is not quite as complete as Outlook’s social connector promises to be.

A new Backstage

Another big change in the beta from the Technical Preview is Backstage View, an all-in-one location for information about documents and common tasks you can perform, such as saving, printing and sharing documents. It brings features and information that are located in many places in Office 2007 into one location in Office 2010.

The version of Backstage that was available in Office 2010’s Technical Preview was useful but somewhat problematic from a design and user interface standpoint. When you clicked the Backstage button, all the other tabs on the ribbon vanished, and getting to another tab on the Ribbon when you were in Backstage took multiple steps. Now the tabs are visible and clickable even when you’re in Backstage.

Backstage varies from application to application; the Backstage View in Outlook, for example, is very different than the one in Word. In Outlook, Backstage lets you modify your e-mail settings, clean up and archive your mailboxes, create rules, save files, save attachments and print. In Word, you can prepare a document for sharing, change document permissions, check versions of the document and much more.

Particularly powerful in Word and several other Office apps are Backstage ‘s sharing features. Using the Sharing area of Backstage, you can send the current file as an e-mail, save it to a SharePoint server, save it to your SkyDrive online storage account and publish it as a blog post.

Making Backstage potentially more useful is its extensibility — companies can build Backstage add-ins for their own employees, for their customers or for others. For example, an enterprise could build buttons into its version of Office that integrate with that company’s business processes — sending a file to a manager for review, exporting data into a database, and so on. A bank could develop a Backstage add-in that lets its customers grab information from their accounts and import it into Excel. Again, though, these kinds of add-ins don’t exist yet, so it’s not clear whether Backstage’s extensibility will be truly useful.

Office Web Apps

The final major change in the Office 2010 beta is the addition of Office Web Apps functionality. The Technical Preview of Office Web Apps was released separately from the Office Technical Preview, so this beta is the first time that the two have been merged publicly.

When released in its final form, Office Web Apps will come in three flavors: a hosted version, powered by SharePoint, for business customers who pay for hosted accounts on Microsoft Online Services; a corporate version, which will be hosted on enterprises’ own SharePoint servers; and a consumer version, tied to SkyDrive, Microsoft’s free online storage service. The three versions will be largely the same, with some small differences. The consumer version will have ads as well as features such as publishing to third-party blogs, while the other two versions will include enterprise-level tools such as backup and restore, version control and IT control over how Web Apps are used.

In the beta, only the hosted SharePoint version is available; the Technical Preview consumer version on SkyDrive won’t be updated until the second half of 2010. I reviewed the SharePoint version on a site provided and hosted by Microsoft. The site did not allow for creating new documents, so I was not able to test that feature, but I was able to edit existing documents. Presumably, the editing features for document creation will be the same as those available for editing existing documents.

Office Web Apps is composed of four applications: Excel, PowerPoint, Word and OneNote. In the beta, as in the Technical Preview, Excel and PowerPoint are more complete, while Word and OneNote are still works in progress. The Office Web Apps look very much like the equivalent client versions, and are far more polished-looking than the competing Google Docs applications. They display documents with full fidelity, and the documents look the same online as they do on your PC.

There have been some changes since the Technical Preview release, although no major ones. You can now edit documents in Word, something not previously possible, and you get the control you would expect over fonts, text size and so on. You also get spell-checking and the ability to insert and handle tables. But there’s not a lot beyond that — no search and replace, no header or footer handling, no graphics handling, no page layout controls, no markup … in fact, there is very little else at this point.

The OneNote Web App, which wasn’t available during the Technical Preview, is now available, but as with Word, you can only do viewing and rudimentary editing. Microsoft says that both the Word and OneNote Web Apps are still in a relatively early stage of development and will be beefed up in future betas.

I found that little, if anything, changed in the Excel and PowerPoint Web Apps between the Technical Preview and beta, and Microsoft says that both apps are now feature complete. That’s a surprise, given how underpowered both are compared to their client versions. In Excel, for example, you can’t add charts to your documents, although if you’ve added a chart in the client version, the chart will display and you can edit it. And in PowerPoint, you can’t add backgrounds to presentations or animations between slides. Given that Microsoft needs to fend off Google Docs, it’s hard to understand why the company left out these basic and important features.

The beta does show how compelling Office Web Apps can be when paired with SharePoint. SharePoint displays all shared documents of a team, workgroup or organization, and lets you lock documents so that only one person can work on them at a time, or allow multiple people to work on them together. It also lets you build workflows for individual documents — for collecting feedback, automatically routing them to approvers and so on. It’s not clear, though, whether in the public beta these features will be available to anyone beyond those who have access to a site created by Microsoft, as I did.

As with the Technical Preview, something very important is missing in the beta: automatic synchronization of files between the Web-based version of Office and the client version. When you work on the Web version, those files live on the Web, not your local PC. When you work on the client version, they live on your local PC, not the Web. You can save files between the versions — for example, when you have a file open on your local PC, you can save it to the Web, and when you have a file open on the Web, you can save it to your local PC.

But unlike in Google Docs, there is no automatic synchronization of files. This can potentially be very confusing, because you can end up with different versions of the same document in different locations, and so you might overwrite newer documents with older ones, or simply not know which is the latest version. Microsoft already has the technology to do automatic synchronization built into its free Live Mesh and Live Sync products. So it’s baffling that the company didn’t include that feature in Office, especially because its biggest competitor, Google, includes it in Google Docs.

Other additions and cleanups

The Office 2010 beta has a few other additions and changes as well. There have been some menu and small interface tweaks, such as changes to some icons. In addition, the client version of Excel has been beefed up somewhat with the addition of “slicers,” which are tools that help you display and filter data visually. For instance, you can use slicers to create dashboards that make it easier to see information displayed as a series of graphs and charts.

There’s one intriguing feature in Office 2010 that I didn’t get a chance to test because it wasn’t available at the time of testing — Click to Run. Essentially, it’s a more streamlined way to install and use Office via download. It creates a local virtual environment on your PC, runs in that environment, and takes up less hard disk space than installing the traditional way. However, Microsoft warns that some add-ins may not work properly or at all. Until I get my hands on it, there’s not much more to report.

Is it worth the download?

Anyone interested in Office should get a copy of this beta and run it on a test machine. When I worked with it, it was solid and performed well without crashing once. I experienced none of the slowness that you sometimes do with betas. Features new to Office 2010 — such as better paste and a standardized, Office-wide reliance on the Ribbon — will most likely improve most people’s productivity.

Unfortunately, some of the most intriguing new features of Office 2010 are not ready to be publicly tested. The Outlook Social Connector is only partially functional at this point — there are no connectors available for social networking sites. And the public, consumer version of Office Web Apps is not part of the beta, either.

Still, any Office user interested seeing the next generation of Office should download the suite, with the usual precautions about not using it for production purposes.

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