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Microsoft’s new Office 2010 has some nice upgrades

As usual, I’m writing this column in Microsoft Word. But I’m now using Office 2010 — the newest version of the popular software suite that went on sale Wednesday for businesses. The consumer version of Office 2010 will be available in June. That’s when Microsoft will also release its free Web version of Office, which will provide scaled down access to Word, PowerPoint and Excel when you have a live Internet connection.

Although I was able to test the entire desktop suite, I wasn’t able to play with the latest version of the Web apps. But I did try out a “technical preview” that allowed me to create and edit a PowerPoint presentation online and import a presentation I developed using the desktop version of Office.

Microsoft did a good job of integrating the online and offline programs. For example, you can display a PowerPoint presentation you created in Office on the Web (complete with animations). And if you wish to edit it with the richer set of features in the desktop software, you can click “Open in PowerPoint.”

On learning that Microsoft will be giving free access to Web apps, I wondered whether the company worries that might cannibalize sales of its desktop software.

Microsoft spokesperson Janice Kapner said in an interview that “we see the cloud as an opportunity for the company. By putting up Web application and letting people use a familiar user experience and fidelity… we get to engage with people who might be using pirated software.” She added: “We think it’s an opportunity to increase our connection with customers and, over the course of time, actually increase our market opportunity.”

Besides, Microsoft is playing catch-up with Google, which already offers a suite of Web-based applications to compete with Office. Google’s response to the introduction of Office 2010 was to put out a blog post called “Upgrade here,” suggesting that businesses consider “upgrading Office with Google Docs.”

Microsoft’s new desktop software has a similar look and feel to Office 2007, which is good thing because, unlike the transition from the version prior to that, users don’t have to go through a big learning curve. When Microsoft launched Office 2007, they took away the familiar menus in most programs and replaced them with a “ribbon” that displays available commands. The ribbon might be an easier interface for novices, but it slowed me down because I had become very familiar with the old interface.

With Office 2010, they put the ribbon on all of the programs, and they now give users the ability to customize it by creating their own tabs (like menus) or by adding commands to existing tabs. I find that helpful because I can now put commonly used options where I can find them quickly.

Another big change is the way it integrates pictures and video into PowerPoint, and pictures into Word and Excel. When you insert a picture, you can now do some basic editing from within Word, Excel and PowerPoint, including removing the background from an image — a cool feature that isn’t even available on some graphic editing programs.

With PowerPoint, you can now trim a video to adjust the beginning and ending, and when you save the PowerPoint presentation, the video is saved with the file instead of elsewhere on the computer. That means you can now move that file to another computer and still be able to view the video.

One excellent addition to Office is actually a bit retro. Even though they maintain the ribbon, they brought back the File menu with its familiar commands such as new, print, save and so on. When you click on the File menu, you also get what Microsoft calls “the backstage view.” That gives you more information about your file as well as more options, including “save and send,” which now allows you to “save” the document to the Web, which will post it to your Windows Live account.

You need to set up a free Windows Live account to use this feature, but you get a whopping 25 gigabytes of free “cloud” storage to save and share documents. You have the option to save the document to a folder that only you can access or to a public folder that allows you to share it with others. This service is available even if you don’t have Office 2010 — at http://skydrive.live.com.

While the upgrade is relatively subtle, the improvements are noticeable. But for many people, Office is fine the way it is and there will be no compelling need to upgrade. Prices start at $149 for the Home and Student edition, but there are discounts available for K-12 students and teachers. Business and professional editions range from $280 to $500.

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