Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

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Office 2010: It's not just DOC(X) and XLS(X)

The newest version of Office is officially numbered 14, a designation that correlates with the various releases, through the years, of Microsoft Word. There were six major versions of Word for DOS, during whose release cycles came three 16-bit Windows versions. Then, starting with Word 95 and counting through Word 2007, there have been six more versions -- all for the 32-bit Windows platform. Skip version 13 to ward off folksy bad luck (and, perhaps, the bugs that could come with it) and that brings us to version 14, which includes implementations for both 32- and 64-bit Windows platforms. We've come a long way baby. Or have we?

As it does every three years or so, debate will now start to rage on over whether we need a "14th" version of the PC platform's standard word processor, or a "13th" version of the spreadsheet. If you accept the premise of that question, then you may be on a slippery slope toward answering it in the negative. Thing is, that premise is valid for certain customers and not others.

The Microsoft Office product has morphed from one that offered core word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and email functionality into a suite of applications that provides unique, new value-added features, and even whole applications, in the context of those core services. The core apps thus grow in mission: Excel is a BI tool. Word is a collaborative editorial system for the production of publications. PowerPoint is a media production platform for live presentations and, increasingly, for delivering more effective presentations online. Outlook is a time and task management system. Access is a rich client front-end for data-driven, self-service SharePoint applications. OneNote helps you capture ideas, corral random thoughts in a semi-structured way, and then tie them back to other, more rigidly structured, Office documents.

Google Docs and other cloud productivity platforms like Zoho don't really do these things. And there is a growing chorus of voices who say that they shouldn't, because those ancillary capabilities are over-engineered, over-produced and "under-necessary." They might say Microsoft is layering on superfluous capabilities to avoid admitting that Office's core capabilities, the ones people really need, have become commoditized.

It's hard to take sides in that argument, because different people, and the different companies that employ them, have different needs. For my own needs, it all comes down to three basic questions: will the new version of Office save me time, will it make the mundane parts of my job easier, and will it augment my services to customers? I need my time back. I need to spend more of it with my family, and more of it focusing on my own core capabilities rather than the administrative tasks around them. And I also need my customers to be able to get more value out of the services I provide.

Help me triage my inbox. Help me get proposals done more quickly and make them easier to read. Let me get my presentations done faster, make them more effective and make it easier for me to reuse materials from other presentations. And, since I'm in the BI and data business, help me and my customers manage data and analytics more easily, both on the desktop and online.

Those are my criteria. And, with those in mind, Office 2010 is looking like a worthwhile upgrade. Perhaps it's not earth-shattering, but it offers a combination of incremental improvements and a few new major capabilities that I think are quite compelling. I provide a brief roundup of them here. It's admittedly arbitrary and not comprehensive, but I think it tells the Office 2010 story effectively.

Across the Suite
More than any other, this release of Office aims to give collaboration a real workout. In certain apps, for the first time, documents can be opened simultaneously by multiple users, with colleagues' changes appearing in near real-time. Web browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote will be available to extend collaboration to contributors who are off the corporate network.

The ribbon user interface is now more pervasive (for example, it appears in OneNote and in Outlook's main window). It's also customizable, allowing users to add, easily, buttons and options of their choosing, into new tabs, or into new groups within existing tabs.

Microsoft has also taken the File menu (which was the "Office Button" menu in the 2007 release) and made it into a full-screen "Backstage" view where document-wide operations, like saving, printing and online publishing are performed.

And because, more and more, heavily formatted content is cut and pasted between documents and applications, Office 2010 makes it easier to manage the retention or jettisoning of that formatting right as the paste operation is performed. That's much nicer than stripping it off, or adding it back, afterwards.

And, speaking of pasting, a number of Office apps now make it especially easy to insert screenshots within their documents. I know that's useful to me, because I often document or critique applications and need to show them in action. For the vast majority of users, I expect that this feature will be more useful for capturing snapshots of Web pages, but we'll have to see whether this feature becomes popular.

At first glance, Excel 2010 looks and acts nearly identically to the 2007 version. But additional glances are necessary. It's important to understand that lots of people in the working world use Excel as more of a database, analytics and mathematical modeling tool than merely as a spreadsheet. And it's also important to understand that Excel wasn't designed to handle such workloads past a certain scale. That all changes with this release.

The first reason things change is that Excel has been tuned for performance. It's been optimized for multi-threaded operation; previously lengthy processes have been shortened, especially for large data sets; more rows and columns are allowed and, for the first time, Excel (and the rest of Office) is available in a 64-bit version. For Excel, this means users can take advantage of more than the 2GB of memory that the 32-bit version is limited to.

On the analysis side, Excel 2010 adds Sparklines (tiny charts that fit into a single cell and can therefore be presented down an entire column or across a row) and Slicers (a more user-friendly filter mechanism for PivotTables and charts, which visually indicates what the filtered state of a given data member is). But most important, Excel 2010 supports the new PowerPIvot add-in which brings true self-service BI to Office. PowerPivot allows users to import data from almost anywhere, model it, and then analyze it. Rather than forcing users to build "spreadmarts" or use corporate-built data warehouses, PowerPivot models function as true columnar, in-memory OLAP cubes that can accommodate millions of rows of data and deliver fast drill-down performance.

And speaking of OLAP, Excel 2010 now supports an important Analysis Services OLAP feature called write-back. Write-back is especially useful in financial forecasting scenarios for which Excel is the natural home. Support for write-back is long overdue, but I'm still glad it's there, because I had almost given up on it.

The 2010 version of PowerPoint marks its progression from a presentation tool to a video and photo editing and production tool. Whether or not it's successful in this pursuit, and if offering this is even a sensible goal, is another question.

Regardless, the new capabilities are kind of interesting. A greatly enhanced set of slide transitions with 3D effects; in-product photo and video editing; accommodation of embedded videos from services such as YouTube; and the ability to save a presentation as a video each give testimony to PowerPoint's transformation into a media tool and away from a pure presentation tool.

These capabilities also recognize the importance of the Web as both a source for materials and a channel for disseminating PowerPoint output. Congruent with that is PowerPoint's new ability to broadcast a slide presentation, using a quickly-generated public URL, without involving the hassle or expense of a Web meeting service like GoToMeeting or Microsoft's own LiveMeeting. Slides presented through this broadcast feature retain full color fidelity and transitions and animations are preserved as well.

Microsoft's ubiquitous email/calendar/contact/task management tool gains long overdue speed improvements, especially against POP3 email accounts. Outlook 2010 also supports multiple Exchange accounts, rather than just one; tighter integration with OneNote; and a new Social Connector providing integration with, and presence information from, online social network services like LinkedIn and Facebook (not to mention Windows Live). A revamped conversation view now includes messages that are part of a given thread regardless of which folder they may be stored in.

I don't know yet how well the Social Connector will work or whether it will keep Outlook relevant to those who live on Facebook and LinkedIn. But among the other features, there's very little not to like.

To me, OneNote is the part of Office that just keeps getting better. There is one major caveat to this, which I'll cover in a moment, but let's first catalog what new stuff OneNote 2010 brings. The best part of OneNote is the way each of its versions have managed hierarchy: Notebooks have sections, sections have pages, pages have sub pages, multiple notes can be contained in either, and each note supports infinite levels of indentation.

None of that is new to 2010, but the new version does make creation of pages and subpages easier and also makes simple work out of promoting and demoting pages from sub page to full page status. And relationships between pages are quite easy to create now: much like a Wiki, simply typing a page's name in double-square brackets ("[[…]]") creates a link to it.

OneNote is also great at integrating content outside of its notebooks. With a new Dock to Desktop feature, OneNote becomes aware of what window is displayed in the rest of the screen and, if it's an Office document or a Web page, links the notes you're typing, at the time, to it. A single click from your notes later on will bring that same document or Web page back on-screen. Embedding content from Web pages and elsewhere is also easier. Using OneNote's Windows Key+S combination to grab part of the screen now allows you to specify the destination of that bitmap instead of automatically creating a new note in the Unfiled Notes area. Using the Send to OneNote buttons in Internet Explorer and Outlook result in the same choice.

Collaboration gets better too. Real-time, multi-author editing is better accommodated and determining author lineage of particular changes is easily carried out.

My one pet peeve with OneNote is the difficulty using it when I'm not one a Windows PC. OneNote's main competitor, Evernote, while I believe inferior in terms of features, has client versions for PC, Mac, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, iPad and Web browsers. Since I have an Android phone and an iPad, I am practically forced to use it. However, the OneNote Web app should help here, as should a forthcoming version of OneNote for Windows Phone 7.

In the mean time, it turns out that using OneNote's Email Page ribbon button lets you move a OneNote page easily into Evernote (since every Evernote account gets a unique email address for adding notes) and that Evernote's Email function combined with Outlook's Send to OneNote button (in the Move group of the ribbon's Home tab) can achieve the reverse.

To me, the big change in Access 2007 was its tight integration with SharePoint lists. Access 2010 and SharePoint 2010 continue this integration with the introduction of SharePoint's Access Services. Much as Excel Services provides a SharePoint-hosted experience for viewing (and now editing) Excel spreadsheet, PivotTable and chart content, Access Services allows for SharePoint browser-hosted editing of Access data within the forms that are built in the Access client itself.

To me this makes all kinds of sense. Although it does beg the question of where to draw the line between Access, InfoPath, SharePoint list maintenance and SharePoint 2010's new Business Connectivity Services. Each of these tools provide overlapping data entry and data maintenance functionality.

But if you do prefer Access, then you'll like things like templates and application parts that make it easier to get off the blank page. These features help you quickly get tables, forms and reports built out. To make things look nice, Access even gets its own version of Excel's Conditional Formatting feature, letting you add data bars and data-driven text formatting.

As I said at the beginning of this post, upgrades to Office are about much more than enhancing the suite's flagship word processing application. So are there any enhancements in Word worth mentioning? I think so. The most important one has to be the collaboration features. Essentially, when a user opens a Word document that is in a SharePoint document library (or Windows Live SkyDrive folder), rather than the whole document being locked, Word has the ability to observe more granular locks on the individual paragraphs being edited. Word also shows you who's editing what and its Save function morphs into a sync feature that both saves your changes and loads those made by anyone editing the document concurrently.

There's also a new navigation pane that lets you manage sections in your document in much the same way as you manage slides in a PowerPoint deck. Using the navigation pane, you can reorder sections, insert new ones, or promote and demote sections in the outline hierarchy. Not earth shattering, but nice.

Other Apps and Summarized Findings
What about InfoPath, Publisher, Visio and Project? I haven't looked at them yet. And for this post, I think that's fine. While those apps (and, arguably, Access) cater to specific tasks, I think the apps we've looked at in this post service the general purpose needs of most users. And the theme in those 2010 apps is clear: collaboration is key, the Web and productivity are indivisible, and making data and analytics into a self-service amenity is the way to go.

But perhaps most of all, features are still important, as long as they get you through your day faster, rather than adding complexity for its own sake. I would argue that this is true for just about every product Microsoft makes: users want utility, not complexity.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 04/29/2010

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