Microsoft has delivered a near-final version of Office 2010 to a small group of invitation-only testers, but doesn't plan to make the new build available to the general public, the company said today.

The release candidate of Office 2010 was recently distributed to Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program (TAP), a group of company partners and customers that routinely receives test previews.

A release candidate, or RC, is the last major milestone in Microsoft's development cycle before it declares the software is ready to release to manufacturing (RTM), a term that indicates the program will soon be sent to duplicators and posted for download by volume license customers.

While Office 2010 RC has been seeded to the TAP testers, it will not be offered to the public, as was the beta last November. "This is one of Microsoft's planned milestones in the engineering process," said a Microsoft spokesman in an e-mail today. "However, they do not have plans to make this new code set available broadly."

The currently-available Office 2007 was not released to the public in an RC edition either, although in September 2006 Microsoft issued what it called Office 2010 Beta 2 Technical Refresh. Office 2007 shipped to corporate customers in November 2006, and hit retail in January 2007.

Legitimate copies of the Office 2010 release candidate may be off limits to most people, but file-sharing sites are already distributing a leaked edition tagged as "Office 2010 PRE RTM Build 4730."

Microsoft has said that it will ship Office 2010 in June, although the appearance of an RC now has sent some speculating that the final will launch before then.

The Office 2010 beta can be downloaded from Microsoft's site. The free beta expires on Oct. 31.

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