Microsoft's upcoming Office 2010 suite, due for release to businesses on May 12, is set to introduce several refinements and new features, many of which have already been seen in either the Technical Preview or the public beta. While the new version won't look dramatically different from its Ribbon-laced predecessor, Office 2007, there are a few additions that should catch the attention of both small businesses and the enterprise.
Collaboration is no doubt an important feature in any business where documents need to be shared or co-authored. Microsoft has supported co-authoring for some years but the ability to simultaneously collaborate on a document has so far been limited.
Office 2010's collaboration features has definitely improved, though the way this has occurred differs depending on the individual application. Word and PowerPoint, for example, support co-authoring within the standalone applications. When two or more users have the document open simultaneously, any updates made to the document are sent to other users, who can choose to update it with changes at any time.
Users can also lock off specific sections of a document so that they can't be touched at that moment. In effect, this means which means that each user can make changes on a particular portion of a document without worrying about changes from other authors. Documents are also backed up incrementally, so changes can be rolled back to a chosen state from the Backstage interface (more on that later).
Co-authoring Excel documents can only be done through the Office Web app client rather than the offline application, which will force enterprises to consider implementing a SharePoint server if they haven't already. Since Office Web apps are a lightweight version of their offline counterparts, this also means that you won't have access to all of Excel's features when co-authoring. However, tighter integration between SharePoint and Office applications does mean it's easier to create an Excel document and upload to the SharePoint server for later collaboration.
Tighter SharePoint integration
Until now, SharePoint has been awkwardly tied to Office applications, with Groove making a small, unnoticed appearance in Office 2007. The new version of the productivity suite, however, offers a "Save to SharePoint" option in each application (or "Save to SkyDrive" in consumer editions) that will allow users to save documents directly to their virtual SharePoint folder, whether it's hosted by Microsoft or the company's own servers.
This will make it easier to co-author documents online or simply backup any user documents online for later viewing. Groove is, of course, still an important facet of this in an offline environment, and will automatically synchronise documents with the SharePoint server once the client PC regains Internet access.
Users of the Xobni plug-in for Outlook 2007 will have already grown used to seeing all available social networking information for each contact straight from their email client. Microsoft has borrowed the idea with its "Social Connector" feature. Depending on which plug-ins are installed (MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn are available out of the box), users will be able to see each contact's social networking information in one central place. Third-party developers can also build their own Social Connector plug-ins.
Office 2010 also sees the addition of contact cards which display relevant contact information and provide the ability to email, instant message or call a chosen recipient from the card. The same contact information is available in all applications, so it's possible to target documents to specific users, or see which users are collaborating on a document.
The new PowerPoint 2010 broadcasting feature lets you temporarily publish a presentation to the Web for select users to view, even if they don't have PowerPoint installed. The presentation is broadcast within Web browsers using Microsoft Silverlight where available, as well as more popular Web standards like ASP, AJAX and HTML.
Once published, the presentation is simply shared through a temporary HTML address, which users can access and view. When the presentation is finished, the original user can pull the broadcast, automatically deleting the Web cache.
PowerPoint broadcasting doesn't support voice or other media so it isn't a replacement for high-end video and teleconferencing applications already available. However, it is a great feature for users who want to provide a quick demonstration without prior technical knowledge.
The Backstage user interface
The File menu in Office 2010 has been replaced by what Microsoft refers to as the "Backstage user interface." Put simply, it's a hub of information relevant to the document, including collaborating authors, a live wiki of any relevant notes and any metadata which makes the document easier to categorise and search for.
The ability to add keyword and user taxonomy – as well as make relevant notes external to the document content – makes traditional applications like Word more akin to a content management solution, albeit only in a basic form. If anything, it makes documents easier to track, search for and attribute to authors.