Office 2010: Who needs an upgrade?

Microsoft Office dominates the business world, but the company still faces tough competition when releasing a new version. What does Office 2010 offer to help it stand out from the crowd?

The biggest problem with Office 2010 is earlier versions of Office itself. Any of the past two or three editions of the software are capable of handling day-to-day tasks - so why upgrade?

On top of that, the free Open Office and its commercial version Oracle Open Office offer competent document handling at a much lower price, and cloud-based offerings such as Google Docs are improving fast, making a new Microsoft Office a hard sell if you take it in isolation.

But it is a different picture if you view Office as part of a collaboration platform built on Sharepoint. Two of the best new features in Office 2010 are simultaneous co-authoring and in-browser editing, but these require Sharepoint 2010 on 64-bit Windows servers. There is an option to use Microsoft's hosted services, so smaller organisations are not entirely excluded.

Alongside these collaboration features, Microsoft has fine-tuned the Office applications and made significant improvements. The previous release, Office 2007, introduced a chunky ribbon interface in place of menus, partly to improve usability - though some users still miss the menus - and partly, one suspects, to differentiate Office from rivals such as Open Office.

Good and bad in Office 2010


 Good points

  • Customisable and more consistent ribbon interface.
  • Allows simultaneous co-authoring where Sharepoint 2010 is used.
  • Numerous detailed improvements, such as Excel Sparklines and Word navigation pane.

 Bad points

  • Limited benefits where Sharepoint 2010 is not available.
  • High cost of Microsoft Office and Sharepoint platform.
  • Office Web Apps have frustrating limitations.


 A welcome upgrade, many small improvements, plus a good start with Web Apps.


Office 2010 is more of the same, with Outlook and Publisher now fully ribbon-enabled, but with a key difference: the ribbon can now be customised. A new right-click option lets you add or hide tabs and change the commands that appear on them, though the dialogue for doing so is somewhat ugly.

Microsoft has removed a feature of Office 2007 that caused confusion - the Office button. This is replaced by a file menu, though it is not quite like the drop-down menus of old. File opens a "backstage view" which occupies the entire application window, with options such as save, new and print. The extra space is used well, incorporating features such as recent documents, template selection and print preview.

Office 2010 review in pictures and video >>

64-bit testing capability

Office 2010 also introduces a choice of 64-bit or 32-bit versions. Now that 64-bit Windows is commonplace, you might imagine that 64-bit Office is the best choice. Surprisingly, Microsoft advises against it, and installs the 32-bit version by default. The reason is compatibility - 64-bit Office will not work with 32-bit ActiveX controls or Com add-ins, and some Visual Basic code will not run without modification, so 64-bit Office could break existing software.

Users with huge Excel spreadsheets will welcome 64-bit and the extra memory it enables, but for most users it will be nothing but trouble. Microsoft's main goal, Excel power users aside, is to let administrators and developers experiment with 64-bit in preparation for the future, though arguably it is not necessary for most client applications.

Sharepoint 2010

Office 2010 makes most sense where it can be used alongside Sharepoint 2010. In this scenario, you get smooth opening and saving from Sharepoint, and Web Apps for remote users (see box). A new application called Sharepoint Workspace, based on Groove, lets users create a synchronised off­line store for Sharepoint, which is excellent for travellers.

On the other hand, for users who have little need of Sharepoint or simultaneous co-authoring, the cost of an Office 2010 upgrade from 2007 may be hard to justify, despite many small improvements.

Word 2010

The advent of simultaneous co-authoring in Word is a great technical achievement, though one that most users will only need occasionally. It is locked at the paragraph level, and limited to documents hosted on Sharepoint 2010. Document refresh is not instant, and in our tests we found it too easy to create conflicting edits.

Everyday users may be more impressed by the new navigation pane, based on the earlier document map feature, which lets you move sections of your document around as well as navigating quickly from heading to heading.

Excel 2010

Like Word, Excel now supports simultaneous co-authoring, though unlike Word this works in Web Excel as well as in the desktop application. It also requires Sharepoint 2010.

After that, the best new feature is Sparklines - small charts which live in a single cell. Using Sparklines, you can show trends visually either alongside or behind your data. There are also improvements to pivot tables and pivot charts, making it easier to visualise multi-dimensional data. 64-bit Excel enables editing of spreadsheets larger than 2Gbytes.

Outlook 2010

Outlook e-mail is the most used Office application, according to Microsoft. Outlook 2007 smartened up the user interface, though it is still replete with confusing and hard-to-find options.

Outlook 2010 is no revolution, but it does add valuable enhancements. One is the ability to use multiple Exchange Server accounts.

Microsoft is also making a big deal of its improved conversation view, which is meant to group e-mails by threads, and allows you to clean up or ignore a "conversation". The snag is that sometimes Outlook forms threads just by looking at the subject heading, which is not a reliable way to group messages.

Outlook's new "social connector" integrates with providers such as LinkedIn, unifying enterprise and social media.

Powerpoint 2010

Powerpoint has enhanced video capabilities which allow users to embed video, crop it to the section they want, index key points for instant access and add styles and effects.

Simultaneous co-authoring in Powerpoint is enabled on Sharepoint 2010.

There is also an excellent feature called "broadcast". This is for scenarios where you are presenting to remote viewers. If you create a set of slides and choose broadcast, your slide show is linked to an online service. E-mail a special link to your virtual attendees, and they can view the show in Powerpoint Web App from anywhere, after logging in with a Microsoft Live ID.

Investigating Office Web Apps

Office Web Apps is Microsoft's answer to Google Docs and similar cloud-based productivity suites. Users can view, create and edit Office documents entirely within the browser. There is no special ActiveX control involved and even Silverlight is not required, though it is used when available. Office Web Apps work with Internet Explorer or Firefox on Windows, Firefox on Linux, and Firefox or Safari on the Mac.

Office Web Apps are deployed as an add-in for Sharepoint 2010. They work even with the free Sharepoint Foundation edition, but users must have a volume licence for Microsoft Office. Microsoft also offers hosted Office Web Apps on Windows Live, aimed at consumers and small organisations.

Although the Office Web Apps client is mostly Javascript, they are backed by server versions of the main Office applications, Excel, Word, Powerpoint and Onenote. A key feature of the Web Apps is that documents remain in their native Microsoft Office format, though for in-browser editing that must be the new Open XML types rather than the old binary ones.

What you end up with is both brilliant and frustrating. Sharepoint is no longer just a way of storing documents online: it becomes a place for viewing and editing as well. Excel and Onenote support simultaneous co-authoring within the browser. The Web Apps look great, complete with ribbon, and first impressions are favourable.

When you explore further, numerous limitations and inconsistencies emerge. Printing does not work in Excel, for example, and even in Word it involves generating and downloading a PDF, which can be confusing for the user. The edit features are only basic, and some document elements can be edited but not created. In the worst case, a user may edit a document in desktop Excel that then prevents it from being edited in Excel Web App. The Web Apps work most smoothly on Windows, and on Linux we ran into problems caused by the open source Moonlight version of Silverlight.

The transition from web to desktop can be jarring and ponderous at times. The Web Apps disable the option to start new documents in the browser, if a local install of Office is detected, which can be annoying. Microsoft's determination to make the Web Apps a companion to desktop Office, rather than a replacement, leads to some problems that do not exist in pure web solutions like Google Docs.

Nevertheless, the Web Apps are a great start, and significantly enhance Sharepoint. Who knows, in some future version of Office the Web Apps may provide everything most users need.

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