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As Certain as Taxes: New Version of Office

Certain landmark events come around every few years, giving some reassuring structure to our lives. You know: Presidential elections. Summer Olympics. Remakes of “A Christmas Carol.”

And, of course, new versions of Microsoft Office.

Office is the software suite that includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It’s the world’s best-selling software; it’s one of the two udders on Microsoft’s cash cow (the other is Windows) thanks to the corporate administrators who buy hundreds of copies at a time.

Microsoft Office 2010
Source: Microsoft.com
Microsoft Office 2010

The newest version, Office 2010, arrives in stores June 15. Weirdly, there’s no discount if you already own Office; everybody has to buy the full version. You save money by downloading the software yourself (or getting it preinstalled on a new PC) and buying a serial-number card at a store.

The Home version (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote) goes for $120; a bundle with Outlook costs $200. (Microsoft sells the whole enchilada — seven apps — to schools for $100.)

That’s a little less than Microsoft was charging for the 2007 version, and no wonder: it’s competing against free. A growing army of defectors is embracing Web-based programs like Google Docs, which offer the core functions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint — and costs nothing.

Drama-loving pundits predict, in fact, that Microsoft Office is doomed. But Microsoft says that the real Office programs offer more features, better speed and usefulness when you’re not online.

Even so, Microsoft is clearly startled by the rise of the free Web programs. With Office 2010, it’s fighting back with the usual list of new features and touchups — and unleashing its own free Web-based suite. That’s right: you can now use Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote on the Web, at no charge, without buying any software at all.

More on that in a moment. But first, here’s what’s new in the not-free version of Office 2010.

There aren’t many gotta-haves in Office 2010. Attractive refinements are everywhere, and Microsoft has removed plenty of small annoyances, but there won’t be much buzz around the water cooler on the morning of June 15.

One of the most inspired changes, though, is Backstage view. It’s a single, tidy window whose options control all administrative aspects of a document: privacy options, sharing options, list of recent documents, a print preview and an option to save a copy as a PDF document (welcome to 2005, Microsoft!). This conceptual separation of creating a document and managing it makes great sense.

To find Backstage, you click the File menu. (Yes, it actually says File again; Microsoft ditched the baffling, unlabeled upper-left orb of the previous version. Microsoft always brags about its exhaustive focus-group sessions — how could they have missed that one?)

The only Backstage downside is that, well, you’re opening what you think is a menu, the File menu, and suddenly your document disappears (to make way for all the management options). So how do you get back to your document? Hint: Don’t click the Exit button. It doesn’t take you out of Backstage view — it quits the entire program. Oops!

Other universal changes: the Ribbon, the giant toolbar at the top of the window, looks less cluttered, and you can customize it (hallelujah!).

You can now recover a document that you closed without saving. Basic photo-editing commands are built into all of the programs. (You know some kind of complexity line has been crossed when your spreadsheet program lets you retouch photos.)

There’s also a new Preview Paste function. When you’re about to paste material into Word, PowerPoint or Excel, for example, pointing to one of the Paste buttons on the ribbon shows you what the document will look like afterward. Why is this even necessary? Because Office has gotten so complex that there are various ways to paste (with original formatting, without formatting, merged formatting and so on).

WORD Microsoft Word has barely been touched in 2010. The left-side table-of-contents view, formerly called Document Map, is an improved navigation pane. It lists all the sections of your book/thesis/whatever, with neatly indented headings.

And now the Web apps

In a snap, you can collapse them, rearrange them, jump to them, and so on. A Search box appears at the top, and the matches are highlighted in the relevant section heads so you know where they fall.

More special effects are available for jazzing up bits of text (shadows, reflections and so on), with less clumsiness than in the old Word Art module. It’s now easier to insert the typographical flourishes that come in certain fonts, like swashes and ligatures.

EXCEL Most of the changes here are for hard-core number-crunchers. You get better-named statistical functions, an equation editor, refined conditional formatting, much more flexibility with pivot tables, and so on.

One of the few new features for the masses is something called sparklines: tiny line graphs that appear right in individual cells of your spreadsheet. They’re often far clearer than 50 overlapping lines in a single chart.

OUTLOOK Outlook got the most attention this year; there’s good stuff here. Conversation View, better known as threading, clumps together all of the messages from a single discussion. Better yet, a Clean Up command removes all the duplicate quoting, giving you much less to wade through, and an Ignore button spares you any more mail on this topic.

Quick Steps are multistep, automated functions like “Send an out-of-office message to this person, forward it to my assistant, then delete the message, all at once.” Unlike traditional mail rules, you can apply one by clicking a button instead of having it applied universally.

In the lower-right corner, the Social Connector window shows the latest MySpace or LinkedIn updates from the sender of a selected message. (Facebook and Twitter are coming soon, says Microsoft.)

POWERPOINT You can now trim or create fades in videos on your slides. You can embed those videos right into your slide show file, too, rather than merely linking to an external video file on your hard drive. (Pro: No more showing up at the conference with a big empty box where the video file is supposed to be. Con: Enormous PowerPoint files.)

Your slide show can now have sections, several slides apiece, for ease of rearranging and repurposing. You can open more than one slide show at once. Best of all, you can broadcast a slide show over the Web — a fantastic feature that could save a lot of travel.

Your admiring spectators don’t need Office or even Windows; they just watch your slides flip by in their Web browsers (minus videos and slide transitions, alas). No more e-mailing PowerPoint files and worrying about missing fonts.

THE WEB APPS The biggest news is Office Web Apps: mini versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, complete with the Ribbon, on the Web.

If you do buy Office 2010, you’ll love the ease of editing, saving and sharing documents directly to and from the Web. (Microsoft gives you a free 25-gigabyte locker for these parked files — a great feature called SkyDrive. Or, if you’re a corporate drone, you use something called SharePoint instead.) In other words, there’s much less manual uploading or downloading of files, as in Google Docs.

If you and your colleagues have Word or PowerPoint 2010, you can open the same document simultaneously, and even edit it simultaneously. Each of you can be working on a different paragraph; hitting Save updates everyone’s copies, more or less instantly.

It’s complex, and a little confusing, and also still under construction. For example, to do this simultaneous editing in Word or PowerPoint, everyone has to own the desktop software; but you can do online simultaneous editing in Excel and OneNote right on the Web.

Clearly, Microsoft is taking aim at Google Docs and its imitators. An arms race for superiority and excellence will be the inevitable result — and that’s one more life cycle to look forward to.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.