It's taken Microsoft a long time to bring its flagship Office suite to the web and now it finally has with Microsoft Office 2010 - the latest version of the dominant business-productivity suite of applications (including Word 2010, Excel 2010, PowerPoint 2010 and Outlook 2010). Updated, July 15 2010.

Office 2010, the next version of the software suite, is not expected to arrive until next year, but a technology preview shows it to be another solid effort from Microsoft.

With this release, Microsoft has polished and expanded upon the groundwork it laid with Office 2007, while continuing to add new capabilities, particularly in the area of networked collaboration.

The software suite comes packed with meaningful improvements such as new cut-and-paste features for Word and new ways to broadcast your PowerPoint presentations online.

But the most striking addition to Office 2010 is the introduction of Office Web Apps. These are lightweight versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote that are all accessible via desktop, mobile devices, and web browsers Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari.

Microsoft claims absolute document fidelity between the online and desktop versions of the Office 2010 apps. If true, this will be a huge step, as among other benefits it will allow users to open Office documents even if they don't own the correct version of the suite. Microsoft says mobile versions of the suite will also be available by Office 2010's formal launch.

We've been playing around with Microsoft Office 2010 for a few weeks now. Our thoughts on the software are outlined below. Sadly we'll have to wait a bit longer for testing Office 2010 web applications. According to Microsoft, its web apps can't be tested until later this year.

Final versions of Microsoft Office 2010 and Office web applications are expected within the first half of 2010. Pricing is still unknown; however, Microsoft says it will bring the number of Office editions down from eight to five.

When Office web applications launch, they will be free and available through Microsoft's Windows Live set of online services. Businesses will be able to choose an Office 2010 licensing option that allows them to host their own Office web applications. Microsoft's Office 2010 website can be found here.

Ribbon is here to stay

Sporting mostly incremental improvements, Office 2010 serves to bridge the gap between the Windows Vista and Windows 7 eras by streamlining the product's controversial Ribbon-based user interface and extending it to encompass the full range of Office applications.

The most visible manifestation can be found in Microsoft Outlook. Gone is the "hybrid" UI where new Ribbon elements were isolated to client forms (email message windows, calendar appointments, and so on) and where the main Outlook window retained the earlier Office 2003 UI.

In its place is a new, four-tab Ribbon that helps to surface much of Outlook's hidden workflow power while bringing the overall user experience in line with the rest of the suite. Add to this some much needed Windows 7 Jump List integration and suddenly Outlook feels less like the neglected stepchild of the Office world and more like the well-integrated cog it has always longed to be.

Microsoft has also tweaked the overall Office Ribbon experience, bringing its layout and structure in line with the newly standardised Ribbon objects from the Windows 7 SDK.

By far the biggest change is the removal of the funky round Office "orb" buttons. They've been replaced by the more staid-looking Application button first introduced with the "Ribbonised" Paint and WordPad applications from the Windows 7 betas.

There's also a button to minimize the Ribbon, which is sure to please everyone who never figured out that double-clicking would do the job in Office 2007.

The layout of the underlying button menu has also changed. Each Office application now sports a customised, window-spanning alternative view that combines information about the currently selected object (document, spreadsheet, email message) with various actions and application-level configuration options.

It's a clever way to eliminate one of the few remaining vestiges of Office's nested menu-driven past while serving to focus the user on the available actions or options.

And since the view is context sensitive, it can adapt itself to match your current work status - for example, switching its default display from a "recently opened files" view when working with a new and unsaved project to a comprehensive file info "dossier" view once you've saved the data to disk.

Of course, one of the biggest changes involves the product's core underpinnings. For the first time, Microsoft is offering a 64-bit version of Office. It's a clear nod to the success of the x64 edition of Windows Vista and tacit recognition of the fact that the 32-bit world's days are indeed numbered.

And while we doubt that many casual users will feel a need to stretch Office's newfound 64-bit legs, we can think of a few Wall Street shops that will be thrilled to get their hands on an even beefier Excel for running those multigigabyte Monte Carlo simulations they just can't live without.

Coming up: Office 2010 application reviews...