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Should you upgrade to Microsoft Office 2010 now?

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

You use it just about every day, and you suspect you’ll upgrade to the latest version sooner or later.

Whether you do so sooner hinges on whether the changes and new features in Microsoft Office 2010 will make a difference in your law practice.

Faced with a changing world order in which Microsoft’s dominance of the office software market continues to ebb, the Redmond, Wash.-based giant is going on the offensive to reclaim market share. It now competes with free office suites like OpenOffice.org and online alternatives like Google Docs, entering their markets with offerings designed to make “defectors” look again at Office, perhaps even luring them back to the full, installed package.

Microsoft’s biggest competitor, though, may be prior versions of Office which, for many people, are good enough.

In the recently released Office 2010 for Windows (the Mac version will arrive in the second half of the year), Microsoft has not only kept the ribbon from Office 2007 but also put it in all other components of the Office suite, including Outlook.

Do you still use Office 2003 and wonder what the ribbon is? “It’s a sort of ‘super toolbar’ that sits at the top of the window,” explains Matthew MacDonald, the Toronto-based author of Excel 2010: The Missing Manual and Access 2010: The Missing Manual, both for the Pogue imprint of O’Reilly. “Most people find it eventually makes them more productive, but it takes some getting used to.”

MacDonald didn’t mention criticisms of Office’s 2007 look. Microsoft did listen to those criticisms, particularly regarding the “disappearance” of the File menu in Office 2007, which led Microsoft to redo that part of the interface.

“There’s a new ‘backstage view’ where you can take care of file management tasks like opening a recent file, saving or uploading a file, printing, and so on,” says MacDonald.

Jason Brommet, Microsoft Canada’s senior product manager for Office, explains the name. “If your Office document is your movie, Backstage is for the directors, sound crew and so forth.”

It’s also where Office keeps the metadata toolbox, and that irks Dominic Jaar. “I would have hoped Microsoft would understand that metadata is important, it should be up front,” says the Office 2010 beta user and CEO of Montreal-based Ledjit Consulting Inc. “Now it’s even further back.”

Microsoft created new Office gadgetry meant to help people handle media, like photos and videos, within a given Office document. “You can clip two minutes out of a ten-minute video inside Office instead of using a third-party tool,” Brommet offers by way of example.

Outlook has become a hub of sorts, where people can monitor not just email but also Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and other social networks.

E-mail can now appear ordered by conversation, similar to threads used in Gmail or Mac Mail. This feature may help people deal with piles of email on a given topic in less time by helping them focus on said topic.

Jaar isn’t too impressed with this effort, though. “Outlook organizes messages by subject, not a deeper analysis of the message,” he says. “Conversations aren’t ready for prime time.”

Since large numbers of people work in online office suites like Google Docs, Microsoft also offers pared-down versions of its Office applications via the web. This marks a departure for Microsoft in that it will let people view and edit Office documents on computers that don’t have Office installed, and it’s providing this set of tools for free.

“The free Office Web Apps will meet the requirements of people who have modest collaboration needs,” MacDonald says. “But in a professional environment, people usually choose something like SharePoint for document tracking, revisions, change management, workflow, and so on.”

Another possible strike against Office web apps: they store files on the Internet rather than a person’s computer. Canadian lawyers may be wary of web-based applications that make their data vulnerable to a U.S. Patriot Act-based search.

Jaar does use Google Docs for non-confidential information, “but unless the client agrees, I’m not comfortable suggesting people move to the cloud unless the cloud they use is in Canada, where at least they’ll be compliant.”

Whether Microsoft creates smartphone clients matters little. Third-party software developers have offered applications for reading and editing Office documents on handhelds since the early days of Palm, and such tools are still popular.

One ongoing criticism Office continues to suffer stems from its complexity. “There are no macro problems,” Jaar says, “just little glitches that you can turn off. But the switches are hidden deep in the software, so you have to search in help and on forums to find them.”

“It’s the downside of having tons of features, unlike more user-friendly stuff that has fewer features.”

To help anybody who has ever been stymied by the number of versions of Office Microsoft will offer, Brommet advocates lawyers get the Pro Plus package for its interaction between Office client applications and Microsoft’s various servers (like Office Communicator) as well as the information rights management it affords (like defining policies around individual documents or e-mails).

Another server, SharePoint 2010, features Workspace (formerly known as Groove). This feature lets people create offline “workspaces” on their computers consisting of documents (and libraries) that reside in SharePoint.

People can also set up ad hoc workspaces and include collaborators outside a corporate network without calling on IT or requesting a VPN for said outsiders.

Microsoft claims Workspace allows for “real-time” collaboration. The term evokes visions of Google Docs-like editing of a given document by two or more people at exactly the same time, but Jaar disagrees with that perception.

“Contrary to Google, you don’t see the changes live,” Jaar explains. “It’s still like SharePoint, with locked documents. It isn’t yet a true collaborative platform — it’s a first-generation attempt.”

Still, Jaar favours Office 2010, if for selfish reasons. “I hope everybody migrates to 2010 since it makes me sick to convert my documents to Office 2003 formats when I collaborate with my colleagues,” he says.

To download a PDF of this article, click Microsoft_Office_2010.

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