July 29, 2010


Microsoft Office 2010. Windows 7/Vista SP1/XP SP3 (32-bit only). Microsoft. Web-based version hosted by Microsoft, free; Professional Academic, $99; Home and Student, $149 boxed or $119 as download with Product Key Card; Home and Business, $279 or $199 as download with Product Key Card; Professional, $499 or $349 as download with Product Key Card.

     Microsoft makes much better products than it tends to get credit for. It did not become the world’s largest software company by producing programs of poor quality or low utility – a fact often forgotten by a journalistic community that contains a disproportionate percentage of Macintosh users and Apple advocates. And when it comes to its bread-and-butter products – Windows operating systems and the Microsoft Office suite – Microsoft simply has to stay at the top of its game in order to maintain its huge and enviable profitability and very high free cash flow. This is doubly true because when the company stumbles, as it did to some extent with Windows Vista, there are hordes of people out there ready to make something that is not as good as it could be seem like evil incarnate. Very few commentators focused on the substantial and genuine innovations of Windows Vista – improvements and new approaches that are now simply taken for granted in Windows 7, which is essentially a refined, smoother, faster-operating Vista.

     Microsoft Office 2007 did not produce the chorus of negative publicity that Windows Vista did – it generally garnered mild to moderate praise, along with speculation that it might be overpriced, over-featured, over-complicated and the beginning of the end of standalone-computer-based office tasks, with individuals and businesses steadily moving their work online rather than buying productivity suites for use on individual computers. But there is a reason that free and online suites, even very good ones such as Oracle’s OpenOffice.org, heavily promote themselves as compatible with Microsoft Office: Microsoft’s product remains the standard against which all others are measured.

     Microsoft Office 2010 raises the bar for the competition. Much as Windows 7 refined the innovations of Windows Vista, Office 2010 refines and improves upon the design and operating innovations of Office 2007. Exactly what you get depends on exactly what you pay – and at prices ranging from zero to $500, the feature array is dizzying and can be confusing. But the essentials of this new Microsoft Office are clear. The top-of-screen “Ribbon,” introduced in Office 2007, is much better: you can more easily find and use a wide variety of options that were difficult to discover in the earlier version. The Ribbon not only shows all the tools you may need at any given moment, but also – in Office 2010 but not previously – works with OneNote and Publisher, which were not previously designed for it. It is also easier now than before to customize the Ribbon, and you can even create your own Ribbon tabs (with your own choices of tool groupings) if Microsoft’s are not enough for your needs. And by the way (or perhaps not “by the way” for some users), you can hide the Ribbon easily by simply clicking on an arrow at the upper right of the display, next to the question mark for Help. You could hide it in Office 2007, too (by clicking on it or pressing Ctrl-F1), but many users never discovered that. This is just one of the many enhancements that make Office 2010 easier to use and more intuitive than earlier versions.

     Microsoft Office 2010 cleverly adopts the coauthoring feature made popular by Google Docs – its major Web-based competitor, with which Microsoft now goes head-to-head in its free version of Office 2010. If you need to have several people working on the same document from different locations, you will find this Office 2010 feature both powerful and easy to use. It is not better than Google’s, but having it in paid versions of Office 2010 removes a potential reason for multi-location users to switch to Google’s online applications.

     Microsoft also took another page from Google by allowing grouping of messages into conversations in Outlook 2010 (and also, by the way, in the new version of Hotmail). This sort of grouping is a major benefit of Google’s Gmail, since it makes it easy to track complex, ongoing discussions. Again, Microsoft’s adoption of the approach is not better than Google’s, but having it integrated with the rest of Office 2010 makes the suite a better one-stop shop for all purposes.

     Office 2010 also has a new Navigation Pane that shows, in outline, the structure of any document on which a user is working – say, a business plan, term paper or thesis. This feature replaces an earlier, rarely used (and not especially well designed) one called Document Map. The Navigation Pane lets you search within any document instantly, and move sections of it around to try them out in different sequences. Unimportant for short documents, it can be highly useful for lengthy and complex ones.

     There are some nifty photo-editing and other graphics tools in Office 2010, too. For example, a background-removal tool guesses what parts of an image you want to keep, displays the rest of the image in purple, and lets you save the foreground object while removing everything else. You do not have to accept the software’s guesses, either – just click on portions of the image to add or remove blocks of color. In fact, cropping and image adjustment are as easy in Office 2010 as on a Mac – another instance of Microsoft’s new suite adapting approaches from a strong competitor. To find out how easy some of the suite’s new features are, you can use the video-editing tool in PowerPoint to drag a timeline that will let you trim a video to the exact display length you want. This is hyper-sophisticated editing.

     Ah, but not everyone wants or needs that level of sophistication. In fact, not everyone wants or needs all the programs within Microsoft Office. And therein lies the explanation of the bewildering variety of flavors and prices of Office 2010. Microsoft is trying to be all (or most) things to all (or most) users. This may be a mistake – certainly the pricing and feature sets are a lot more confusing than is the program itself once you start using it. But this is, after all, one of Microsoft’s core products, and to the extent that the company can make it appealing to the largest possible number of users, it can preserve and potentially even extend its dominance at a time when competitors such as Apple and Google are looking stronger than ever.

     So here is how things work. There is no upgrade pricing for any version of Office 2010 – a disincentive for users of Office 2007 to switch, although users of Office 2003 really should take the plunge already. Microsoft is trying to encourage people to download the software and activate it with a Product Key Card, so downloaded versions are significantly discounted from boxed ones. In content terms, Office Professional includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and Office Web Apps, and comes with premium technical support; it can be installed on two PCs. Office Home and Business includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, and Office Web Apps; it can also be installed on two PCs. Office Home and Student includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Office Web Apps; its Family Pack version can be installed on up to three PCs in a single residence. Office Professional Academic, intended for students and teachers and available only through campus bookstores and academic retailers, has all the programs included within the corporate version of Office Professional – that is, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and Office Web Apps; it can be installed on two PCs.

     This complex arrangement actually much all buyers some programs they did not get in prior versions of Microsoft Office. Specifically, OneNote and Office Web Apps appear in all versions, and Publisher is now in both Office Professional versions.

     And what do you get for free? The answer is: some really good things and some frustration. In the Web version of Office 2010, you can create and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote docs in a browser window. No software downloads or plugins are needed – the Web version works in all major browsers. However, it has some significant and rather odd limitations. For example, it will not let you edit documents that have the Track Changes feature enabled (you can read them but not change them). In Word, documents can be saved only in Microsoft’s newest file format – which cannot be opened by versions of Microsoft Office prior to Office 2007. Perhaps oddest of all, the Web version of Office 2010 does not allow coauthoring – which would seem to be a primary use of this type of online software. Having coauthoring in a desktop version but not an interconnected online one just seems, well, weird.

     So, what to do? There is no question that Microsoft Office 2010 is the best version of this suite yet made. It is as full-featured as ever – yes, overly complex to some, but astonishingly powerful to others. And its multiple versions make it possible to target more or less whatever elements are most important to you. Everything works smoothly, everything works together, and everything is more intuitively designed and easier to use than ever. There is very little you could possibly want to do on a computer at home, school or work that you cannot do with Microsoft Office 2010. It shows Microsoft at its very best: powerful, adaptable (willing to include and modify others’ good ideas), and so smooth functionally that you quickly forget that you are using super-capable software and simply focus on creativity and design. You can’t ask for more than that.

     But is Office 2010 an unqualified “buy”? Well, not quite. For users of Office 2003, it certainly is – that version now seems hopelessly dated and, more importantly, just cannot do everything that office workers, students and others want to do with their computers nowadays. For users of Office 2007, though, the upgrade decision is not so straightforward. It could have been if Microsoft had continued to offer upgrade pricing, but since the only way to get Office 2010 (other than the online version) is to pay for an entire new product, cost is definitely an issue – especially for families and small businesses (larger businesses, particularly ones relying on collaborative tools, should upgrade to Office 2010 in any case). So here’s what to do: download the free trial version of Office 2010 from Microsoft. You can use it at no cost for 60 days – and it does not make any changes in any earlier installed version of Microsoft Office. If, after two months, you find that Microsoft Office provides enough enhancements and improved ease of use to be worth the investment, buy it – you will already be familiar with how it works and how it differs from Office 2007. If you decide not to buy, simply stop using Office 2010 after the free-trial period and return to the earlier version. By offering this free trial, Microsoft is clearly betting (in another bit of corporate cleverness) that users will decide after 60 days of use that the many new and better elements of Microsoft Office 2010 make it a worthwhile purchase even without upgrade pricing. That’s actually pretty likely – and yet another reason not to bet against Microsoft, or to underestimate the company’s creativity and marketing savvy.

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