Review: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Review: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Online integration is a key aim of the beta

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.

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