It's official. Starting today you can use Microsoft Office for free! Today marks the official street / retail release of Office 2010, and it coincides with the launch of the free online version of the Office Web Apps. Granted, the web-based versions offer some stripped-down functionality compared to their more traditional counterparts, but since all you need is a free Microsoft Live account to start working, you can't beat the price. Plus they work across platforms (Windows and Mac) and on multiple browsers.
The look and feel of the web apps is remarkably similar to the standard versions, and they do a great job of maintaining the integrity of even the most complex documents. You also don't need to have Office 2010 on your computer to work on these documents-you could use an older version of Office when you are off-line, but of course having the latest and greatest will help everything work together seamlessly.
So even without the new free web version, the question is whether or not the upgrade is worthwhile and how soon you should jump in. There is quite frankly a lot to like in the new version of Office, whether you are an individual user working at home or a large enterprise with thousands of users. Depending on how compelling you find some of the new features, you might want to run out today and upgrade, or plan a smooth migration for sometime in the near future.
For the home user or home office, most of the enhancements come in the form of design and presentation. The new graphic editing capabilities built into Word and the video editing in PowerPoint can make even the smallest one-person company look like a rock star. We live in a visual world and Office is putting together the tools you need to embrace it.
Businesses will no doubt embrace some of the cool new collaboration and business intelligence features. In Excel, brand new tools like Sparklines and Slicers make every user in your organization a data analyst and let you create really meaningful dashboards on the fly with little effort or training. Another welcome change in Excel is the simplification of Pivot Tables. While they have long been one of the most useful features in Excel, the complexity limited their usefulness for the average user. This is no longer the case in Excel 2010.
As for collaboration, there are a world of new features from the simple to the completely amazing. PowerPoint has a really neat new slide broadcasting feature that lets you create ad-hoc webinars and share your slide decks with any users on the web with just a few mouse clicks. That's the simple stuff. The amazing stuuf comes in the form of multi-user simultaneous document editing that lets users work on and edit the same documents (Word or PowerPoint) at the same time, with changes being locked at the paragraph or slide level. As one user saves changes, others are alerted to the new updates, and a simple refresh brings the changes to their screen without interruption. Thankfully the days of sending a document back and forth between different authors or piecing together different people's work are finally behind us. Office 2010 lets you work in a much more natural way.
Of course, I saved the best for last. Outlook 2010 is worth the price of admission alone. First off, from an appearance standpoint, Outlook now has the Ribbon Bar so it matches the rest of the Office Suite. But looks aren't the only improvement. Outlook is the application most people use more than any other, and it can be frustrating at times. It seems Microsoft finally heard the roar and really addressed the usability of the program. The new conversation view is a really simple way to handle all the e-mail threads you get copied on that seem to go back and forth forever. You can also clean up the messages in these conversations with a click and remove all the redundant messages. This helps you keep control over your inbox like never before.
Outlook also includes a series of Quick Steps-kind of like Macros for your e-mail. So for example you could setup a one-click shortcut to forward an e-mail to everyone in your department, create a follow-up, and move it to the appropriate folder. It's almost like a rule, but you maintain much more control over the actions. If you're tied into Exchange, you can take this even further with MailTips, which can do things like flag confidential information you are about to accidentally send to people outside your company. This is the type of feature a business might embrace to help ensure their users are not accidentally violating company policy or regulations.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite the lack or revolutionary change to the user interface (like we saw when Office 2007 was released), Office 2010 is a really solid upgrade. I think the features are enough to compel the average user or company to make the change. Sure the free version is intriguing, and might be more than enough for some users, but there is a lot more to be had. I think the combination of the online and offline versions will keep Microsoft on top of the mountain of office applications for quite a while, and competitors like Google and OpenOffice will keep struggling just to keep up.