Office 2010: Productivity Play

When Microsoft Office 2010 ships this month, the suite faces its most serious challenge yet from lower-cost alternatives. Here are nine reasons why Redmond's newest version still promises to be a boon to partners.

Two of the most important releases of the 2010 product wave from Redmond are coming this month: Microsoft Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010. They promise to deliver a one-two punch in allowing partners to sell customers on the promise that their enterprises can become more productive and efficient.

Microsoft says 5 million testers have downloaded the beta of Office 2010. Moreover, Microsoft has recently trained 35,000 solutions providers and VARs on the new features in Office 2010 and has begun rolling out sales readiness programs.

Partners that have drilled into the Office 2010 beta say they can make the case that customers would benefit from upgrading to the new release, especially those still running the older Office 2003. But even those with Office 2007 will welcome the unified implementation of the Ribbon, the improved Outlook client and the document collaboration and Web interface the new package offers.

Since its release six months ago, Windows 7 sales have been impressively strong -- already accounting for 10 percent of all OS sales. Hence, the opportunity is ripe to bundle Office 2010 with those new PCs. And as we reported last issue, there's already pent-up demand for SharePoint 2010 (see "Chomping at the SharePoint Bit," April 2010). Office 2010 is pivotal in allowing organizations to exploit all the features in SharePoint 2010.

"Now everybody can open up a file that's on a SharePoint server, and coauthor it together," says Giovanni Mezgec, general manager of the Microsoft Office and Productivity Group. "That means multiple people can work on a document together."

 "When I show coauthoring to clients, they're able to discover how it actually will have [return on investment] for them. It will really save time; it will really make customers work better, faster, cheaper."

Erik Thorsell, President, Success Computer Consulting

Omar del Rio, a vice president at Los Angeles-based Gold Certified Partner Sieena, says a number of customers looking to upgrade to SharePoint Server 2010 are finding the new Office release will be necessary to exploit the new collaboration platform's full capabilities. "I think SharePoint 2010 is going to be the enabler of Office 2010 upgrades, because there are many features in SharePoint 2010 that are actually going to work better with Office 2010," del Rio says.

Microsoft says more than 500 million users have some form of the Office suite. But as the broader economy improves and IT spending picks up, as is expected, the question remains how quickly users will upgrade to Office 2010. Microsoft touts the promise of improved productivity every time it releases an Office upgrade -- will users bite this time?

The driver for upgrades is less likely to be productivity enhancements, and more likely to be the fact that the more widely deployed Office 2003 needs better compatibility with the Office 2007 formats, says Directions on Microsoft analyst and RCP columnist Paul DeGroot.

"The Office converters don't give you full fidelity," DeGroot says. "The Ribbon may also continue to be a barrier. The productivity hit as people adjust to the new UI stopped some companies from upgrading to Office 2007."

In addition, DeGroot isn't convinced the new features in Office 2010 will have enough appeal in their own right to justify costly upgrades right away.

Under the backdrop of that skepticism, partners that have spent the past six months testing the beta of Office 2010 believe customers looking to become more productive will benefit from features such as document sharing and the improved Outlook client.

"Windows 7 has had a massive uptick, unlike anything I've seen since Windows 95. But when I talk to customers about Windows 7, they're even more interested in talking about Office than they were about Windows," says Carl Mazzanti, a vice president at eMazzanti Technologies, a Gold Certified Partner based in Hoboken, N.J.

Productivity, he says, is the key driver. "If you look at Office as the mainline application that everyone spends the majority of their day in every day, and you can get 5 percent or 10 percent or 20 percent more productivity out of the people you already have, it pays for itself," Mazzanti explains.

Based on feedback from partners and Microsoft, and on our own observations of Office 2010, here are nine improvements in Office that partners should be discussing with their customers.

Improved Outlook Means Better Message Management
The release of Outlook 2010 will pair well with Exchange Server 2010 and Microsoft Office Communications Server (see "Office Calling"). Those buried in large volumes of e-mail should appreciate that Outlook 2010 lets users customize their conversations. For example, if a user clicks on a message, all messages related to that thread come into view, even if they're in different folders. Or a user can limit views of a threat with numerous replies to just one message, which can be expanded if the user chooses.

"I don't have to read each individual message -- they're all in the last reply anyway," Mazzanti says. "It will combine anything that's been sent, anything that's been received, all into one conversation. It's a huge time saver." Use of a feature called Ignore will automatically delete all incoming messages tied to that thread.

Outlook 2010 also connects to multiple e-mail accounts and has a wizard feature called Quick Steps that allows individuals to create one-click actions that combine multiple tasks in Outlook. For example, according to Microsoft, a user can create a Quick Step that would automatically delete a message after replying to it.

"Office 2010 provides a new way to categorize e-mail, search e-mail, clean up inboxes ... really make life a lot easier for somebody that needs to manage information with e-mail and calendars," says Microsoft's Mezgec.

Social Networking for Business Users
As last month's SharePoint report revealed, many partners say customers are interested in the upgraded collaboration platform for its support for enterprise social networking. Those features will be accessible in Outlook 2010. Outlook users can view messages as well as status updates.

Outlook 2010 has a People Pane that tracks an activity stream of those in their address books, as well as through SharePoint.

But users will also be able to connect to external social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Windows Live. The Outlook Social Connector will propagate any update to a contact's status, employment or other common information to both the social network and Outlook.

CoAuthoring and Document Sharing
The ability to share and coauthor documents is enabled in two key ways. One is through support for SharePoint WorkSpace 2010, which is based on the technology previously known as Groove. Microsoft acquired Ray Ozzie's Groove Networks in 2005. The Groove capability was only offered in the Enterprise and Ultimate SKUs of Office, but is now available in the Professional Edition, which Microsoft says will be easier to deploy and administer.

Users can download any or all files from SharePoint Server and work with them offline, and then resynchronize with the server. Likewise, when connected to the server, they can check in and check out documents or files.

Users can also share documents via the Web client and through Microsoft Office Live Services.

"When I show coauthoring to clients, they're able to discover how it actually will have [return on investment] for them," says Erik Thorsell, president of Success Computer Consulting, a Gold Certified Partner based in Minneapolis. "It will really save time; it will really make customers work better, faster, cheaper."

Ribbon Revamped and Extended
When Microsoft introduced the Ribbon interface in Office 2007, the company only offered it in Word, PowerPoint and Excel. It was not well-received, perhaps because of the half-baked nature in which it was offered throughout the suite. Now it's nearly ubiquitous throughout Office 2010 and SharePoint, as well as licensed to third-party ISVs.

"I think we got as much pushback from the change in the user interface as we did positive message, initially," Thorsell says. "Now that we're done with the change, we can focus on the real features that bring business value to people."

Microsoft's Mezgec believes Office 2003 users jumping to the new release will find a much more graceful transition to the Ribbon UI this time around. For one, Microsoft made it easier for users to find commands in the Ribbon through the new Backstage view. Individuals can also customize the way they use the Ribbon by prioritizing the commands they use. Customization can be performed without coding by using the options menu.

Built-in Video Support
Embedding videos into Word and PowerPoint presentations has always required the use of third-party tools and resulted in extremely large files. Office 2010 users will welcome the ability to edit and embed videos natively within the file.

"When I talk to clients about that, their eyes light up -- they say problem solved," Thorsell says.

"As multimedia has taken a foothold in the business market, Office 2010 treats video and high-quality multimedia as a first-class citizen," Mazzanti says. "It realizes the importance of audio, video and the like and treats it very well." In addition to making it easier to edit and embed video within Office, the content tends to flow more seamlessly and uses compression to make the file sizes more reasonable, Microsoft says.

Self-Service BI in Excel
While Office is clearly emerging as the rich-client front-end component of SharePoint Server, the new release of Excel promises to step up to enable those who deploy SQL Server. "You can open huge data sets in Excel 2010," says del Rio. "When you're working with hundreds of thousands of records, that really helps."

A new feature called Sparklines provides concise visualization of these massive data sets in small charts within worksheets. "Sparklines help bring meaning and context to numbers being reported and, unlike a chart, are meant to be embedded into what they're describing," writes Sam Radakovitz, a program manager on the Microsoft Excel team, in a blog posting.

Excel 2010 also introduces Slicers, which Microsoft describes as visual controls that let users filter these large data sets. Another much-awaited feature coming to Excel is PowerPivot, formerly known as "Project Gemini." Excel 2010 can connect to multiple data sources and use the PowerPivot compression and data-caching engine to rapidly create dashboards.

Office Web Apps
With the release of Office 2010, Microsoft is letting users create and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents anywhere from a Web browser. Office Web Apps will be available in two forms. For consumers and small business customers, Microsoft is offering Office Web Apps as a free service under Windows Live, where files can be saved to its SkyDrive service.

For enterprise customers, Microsoft is making Office Web Apps available through SharePoint Foundation 2010 or SharePoint 2010. When installing Office Web Apps, Microsoft says users should select Office Web Apps Services from the listing of SharePoint Services and the Office Web. Word Viewing Service, PowerPoint Service and Excel Calculation Services run in conjunction with SharePoint Services and integrate with the SharePoint enterprise content management library, allowing access to any enterprise documents from a browser. Documents are rendered in HTML and JavaScript from the browser; if it has Microsoft Silverlight runtime, certain images might also be rendered in XAML.

Mobile Client
Perhaps the least-clear benefit to partners in the near term is the capabilities in the new Mobile Office Client. It provides richer ability to read and edit documents in Word, Excel and PowerPoint with an Outlook client that brings many key features from the PC version to the phone, such as the Conversations View. In addition to integrating with Exchange Server, the new client will support versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Included is SharePoint Workspace Mobile 2010, which lets users browse document libraries and edit documents using Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint Mobile 2010. Initially, Mobile Office Client will be supported on the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 Series, due out later this year, and Nokia phones.

Easier to Buy
Microsoft has dropped the number of SKUs for business customers from four to two, while maintaining three versions for consumers. Perhaps more notably, many customers may already be paying for their Office 2010 license through various programs such as Microsoft Software Assurance or the Microsoft Open Value Subscription program for small and midsize enterprises with up to 750 PCs.

Some 80 percent of Thorsell's customers now subscribe to that option, up from 0 percent two years ago. "Instead of having to come up with all of the cash up front, it makes the decision easier to make," he says.