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Review: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Review: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Online integration is a key aim of the beta

The just-released Microsoft Office 2010 beta shows Microsoft's vision for integrating Office with the greater Internet. Most notably, it introduces a potentially powerful Outlook feature that can combine your e-mail with social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Also on display is the Web-based version of Office, another way Microsoft is trying to make sure that Office is no longer the island it has been for too long. However, that is marred somewhat by the lack of some important features in the Web-based version of Office, such as the ability to create charts in Excel.

Like the previously released Technical Preview, the beta also incrementally improves Microsoft's best-selling Office suite, putting the Ribbon at center stage as the default interface for all Office applications, powering up individual apps with tools such as built-in video editing, and including a variety of productivity enhancers, such as a better paste operation.

Since I've already reviewed the Technical Previews of both of Office 2010 (see Review: Office 2010 Technical Preview -- no wow, just solid improvements) and Office Web Apps (see Hands on: Microsoft's Office Web Apps), in this review I will focus on changes made since those releases.

Outlook, meet Facebook

One of the most significant changes to Office is not an interface change, but a feature that could dramatically improve the way people connect with others and share information. Called Outlook Social Connector, the new feature has a twofold purpose: to track all of your e-mail and other history with each specific contact, and to extend Outlook's reach beyond Office to the Internet and social networking sites.

When you're reading an e-mail message to or from someone, the Connector appears at the bottom of your message in its own separate pane. The pane displays a history of your communications with that person in Outlook -- e-mail messages, attachments exchanged, meetings scheduled in Outlook, and so on. You can see all these items in one big list or click a tab to view just one type -- for example, just e-mails you've exchanged with that contact -- then click an item to go directly to it.

This can be an exceptionally powerful tool for managing information and handling e-mail overload. How many times have you wanted to find an attachment you've exchanged with someone, or wanted to read a previous e-mail message? Now, instead of having to search through Outlook to find it, it's right there in front of you. Choose an old message, an attachment or a meeting from the list, and you go to it right away. It's that simple.

That by itself would make the Social Connector a very useful tool, but potentially even more powerful is its promised ability to automatically exchange information with social networking sites, with SharePoint servers, and perhaps with new services that don't yet exist. In order for this kind of communication to take place, companies will have to write individual connectors that link their sites to the Outlook Social Connector. Because Office 2010 is just getting into beta, those connectors have not yet been written, with the exception of one that Microsoft wrote for SharePoint.

When such connectors are available, the Outlook Social Connector could, for example, automatically grab new contact information for your Outlook contacts from social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and update them in Outlook, as well as import pictures of the contacts from those sites and display them in Outlook.

In addition, the Outlook Social Connector could display any status updates that someone has made on social networking sites -- for example, if they have a new job, have posted new photos, and so on. That means that you will be able to participate with those social networking sites in many ways without leaving Outlook. Outlook could start to become the center of your social networking -- no need to visit multiple sites, because the information could be shipped straight to Outlook without your intervention.

It's not clear yet whether this will work the other way around -- that is, whether you'll be able to post an update in Outlook and have it automatically sent to your social networking sites -- because the individual connectors haven't yet been built. My guess is that it will be possible, but we won't know until then.

Also potentially useful is an Activities RSS feed piped into the Social Connector. If you've included a URL for a contact's blog in your Outlook contact record for that person, the Connector will tell you whenever there's a new blog post. (Note, however, that I wasn't able to get this feature to work in the beta.) In addition, it will show you when a contact has updated their SharePoint My Site, which is a kind of personal portal or home page people have in SharePoint.

But at this point these are all just promises. In order for these features to work, the social networks (or third-party developers) will have to create the connectors. Once they do, you'll have to install them by clicking the + button in the Social Connector and following installation instructions. However, if the feature works as promised -- and it would be very surprising if the most popular social networking sites didn't release connectors -- Outlook will become more powerful by a significant magnitude.

Some of these features may sound familiar to people who use the Xobni add-in for Outlook, because Xobni offers tools for viewing all communications with a contact. The add-in also does some of these types of things with social networking sites, although the integration with social networking sites is not quite as complete as Outlook's social connector promises to be.

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