Microsoft has commanded the attention of business folk around the globe by announcing the world-wide release of its new productivity suite, Office 2010. As well as introducing more new features than you can shake a stick at, the company's cloud computing aspirations are given form with the introduction of browser-based versions of the likes of Word and Excel.

Office 2010 officially left technical preview in November last year to enter public beta. Microsoft reports the largest ever participation in beta testing for Office 2010 with some 8.6 million people getting involved, more than three times the number of the previous Office beta phase.

Since releasing Office 2007, a new breed of professional productivity software users has emerged. No longer tied to one working location, they've been treated to regularly updated applications and they're spoiled with a choice of free-to-use tools to help them achieve their goals. In such a climate, it's almost unthinkable that a company could wait three long years before launching a new version of its software but that's exactly what Microsoft has done, only just now announcing the next version of its flagship software suite to business users.

Need new features? Done

The newest incarnation of Office is positively overflowing with new features but, as ever, exactly how useful such things prove to be will depend on how the suite is used. Users will find some familiar ground of course but new feature highlights include new picture formatting tools such as color saturation and artistic effects aimed at bringing documents to life. Backstage view replaces the familiar file menu and gives a more modern polished feel to saving, sharing, printing and publishing documents.

Sharing the workload and benefiting from multiple input is made possible with the inclusion of co-authoring tools in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote and Office 2010 is geared towards offering a similar user experience across PC, phone and browser platforms (more on the latter a bit later).

The old Document Map feature in Word is out, having been replaced by the new and improved Navigation Pane that provides quick and easy visual representation of document structure. Microsoft claims to have made improvements to the search functionality and given modern computing more than a passing thought with the inclusion of formatting enhancements especially for tablet devices.

An interesting addition to Excel is Sparklines, which can deliver a clear and compact visual representation of data through small charts within individual worksheet cells. Pivot tables get a host of improvements to filters, views and charts. Power users benefit from streamlined integration of data from multiple sources and speedy manipulation of huge data sets, the 64-bit version also caters for immense database development opportunities.

A long overdue addition to debut in the new Outlook is conversation view which can help bring together emails and replies on a themed subject into one expandable thread. Integrating graphics into emails might just help make your point stand out even more and the new Outlook Social Connector brings social network feeds directly within the popular productivity tool, which now also benefits from communication history.

Embedding video content into presentations is now automated, negating the need to manage external media files and PowerPoint also offers basic editing from right within the application. But it's the ability to share slide shows with just about anyone (with or without Office installed) that grabs the new feature headlines for this application. Broadcast Slide Show simply relies on a web browser to be present on the device used by viewers.

Looking to the cloud

On the subject of browser-based interaction, the Redmond behemoth has taken a significant step towards the cloud by making its desktop application suite available online, as well as via the more familiar offline territory. Web Apps can be viewed as being online companions to desktop programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, preserving the look and feel of whatever document is being worked on, no matter the device being used for access.

With a whole new world of cloud storage and collaboration possibilities being presented for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (a digital notepad) users, the only likely irritation could be (more than) a few unwelcome prompts to install Microsoft's Silverlight application for those who haven't already done so.

Microsoft has of course had internet-based social networking and email portals amongst its arsenal for a good while now and moving Office into such unfamiliar surroundings may well be a testament to the phenomenal recent growth of other players who offer online productivity tools (often free) and have managed to successfully shift focus from data storage on privately-owned machines to remote unseen servers, but it's an important development nonetheless.

The defining moment

Microsoft's Stephen Elop said at the New York product launch that "Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 define the future of productivity. With the 2010 set of products, organizations will save, innovate and grow as their people benefit from working across the PC, phone and browser." Whether businesses will invest in an upgrade remains to be seen but if a study undertaken by Forrester Consulting is anything to go by, companies could expect a return on investment of over 300 percent in just over seven months after rolling out the new suite.

The business-only Office 2010 release is currently available in 14 languages, with another 80 being phased in over the next few months and the company has also announced a free Office Mobile upgrade for all Windows 6.5 users via the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Consumers won't have to wait too long for their turn to make an upgrade decision, prices start at US$99 for the Academic version and rise on up to US$499 for Office Professional.

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