With the release of the Office 2010 beta, the general public finally gets to check out how Microsoft plans to deliver on its promises for the next edition of its flagship productivity suite, namely close integration with lightweight web versions of core apps (Excel and PowerPoint Web are the first to debut for consumers via Windows Live, with Word and OneNote available only in the business oriented SharePoint 2010 server beta), better multimedia support, a subtle interface refresh, and a slew of features designed to make document creation and sharing easier. But there's some news too, most notably support within Outlook for tracking feeds from social networks.

Suitewide, the most immediately apparent change is the departure of the round Office button that brought up commands for saving and printing documents as well as for changing application-specific settings. Instead, Microsoft returns to a familiar menu convention: a File tab that brings up a full screen of commands and information. Microsoft calls this screen the Backstage View.

Backstage ViewThe left navigation bar in Backstage View holds many of the commands, but most of the real estate is devoted to big panes filled with document-specific items such as editing permissions, links to autosaved versions, file size, and even a thumbnail. Businesses can customise Backstage View to integrate their workflow processes. It's a nice idea in many ways, the ability to return to previous unsaved versions is especially good, but it can also be a bit disconcerting since you completely lose sight of the original document (except for the tiny thumbnail).

One of the cooler suitewide tweaks affects a simple task that most people perform every day: cutting and pasting text. Having observed that in many instances users immediately undo their paste, Microsoft engineers have added a paste-preview feature that lets you see the results before you commit (similar to the mouseover previews of font changes and other edits available in the ribbon). You even get to choose between previews that apply different formatting options, either maintaining source formatting, merging with destination formatting, or removing all formatting.

Improved picture editing tools allow you to preview and apply cropping (and many new adjustments and effects) on the fly as you insert images into Office documents.

The ribbon interface introduced in the key Office 2007 apps goes suitewide in Office 2010, with more contextual changes. Application icons are chunkier and restricted to one letter, which invites confusion in the case of PowerPoint and Publisher, and bemusement in the case of Outlook and OneNote (the latter's icon is the letter N, one leg of which looks like a 1).

Ribbon Interface

Other interface changes include a new color scheme, with classy muted grays that make the sky blues of past editions seem almost boisterous, and an orange logo instead of the multicolored one of years past.

Web Applications

The Office Web Apps collection, Microsoft's eagerly awaited answer to Google Docs, Zoho, and other web-based productivity tools, is still a work in progress, not surprising since the current apps are prominently labeled as technical previews. Microsoft says that all of them will be finalised and available to consumers via SkyDrive (Microsoft's free online file storage service) and to businesses via SharePoint 2010 server software when Office 2010 ships in the first half of 2010.

Word WebHowever, judging from the preview versions I tried through a SharePoint site that Microsoft set up for reviewers (and through the technical beta program on SkyDrive), they're no match for the competition. For example, Excel can't create charts, Word has no support for revision mode, and the slide creation tools in PowerPoint pale next to the wealth of choices in Zoho Show.

SharePoint's interface for document sharing isn't particularly intuitive: You can't create new documents on the web (although Microsoft says eventually you'll be able to), instead you must upload them from desktop apps. And regardless of location (SharePoint or Windows Live), Office Web Apps will work only with documents in Microsoft's XML file formats (.docx, .xlsx, and so on). But in my tests, at least, Office Web Apps generally delivered on fidelity, meaning that what you see online is what you get on the desktop and vice versa, which isn't always the case with other web apps that support the Office formats.

Though all Windows Live users will have access to Office Web Apps, the offerings' lack of features suggests that Microsoft isn't trying to create a web-based productivity ecosystem so much as it is attempting to give customers a Microsoft option for basic editing when they don't have access to the desktop software.

Starter Edition

Other news relates to how Office 2010 will be delivered on new PCs. Instead of the free limited period trial commonly available now, Microsoft will make a free, ad-supported Office Starter Edition available to PC manufacturers (this will replace Microsoft's lowend Works suite, too).

But it's a stripped down freebie, consisting of basic versions of Word and Excel that each lack three of the seven tabbed main-menu items in the full versions. In Starter, Word won't have the Reference, Review, and View tabs. Excel will omit Reference, Review, and Data. Both apps will have a taskbar on the right side containing a small ad toward the bottom for the full versions of Office.

More annoyingly, because the Starter apps don't support revision mode, you won't be able to accept, reject, or even delete revisions in documents created in the full versions of Office, which renders Starter Edition useless for any sort of collaboration.

Available Packages

Microsoft is offering the 64-bit version of Office alongside the 32-bit version, you can make your choice during installation. The additional addressable memory that 64-bit PCs and apps support will primarily benefit people who work with huge spreadsheets.

Generally we liked the innovations of Office 2007 (although many other people did not). In this new version, Microsoft has made a lot of usability and design improvements that individually may not bowl anyone over, but as a package, especially as the web apps mature, are solid and welcome. No pricing has been revealed for the editions announced earlier this year: Office Home and Student (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote), Office Home and Business (which adds Outlook), Office Professional (which adds Access and Publisher on top of the rest), and the two volume-licensing editions, Office Standard (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, and Publisher) and Office Professional Plus (which builds on Standard by adding Business Contact Manager CRM features to Outlook, as well as Access, InfoPath, Communicator, SharePoint Workspace, and other enterprise-specific extras).

If Microsoft doesn't make the cost of upgrading from 2007 prohibitive, I'd be inclined to move up to this new Office.