The Cubicle Perspective: Microsoft Office 2010 for the Rest of Us

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Every year or two, when Microsoft launches the latest version of its Office suite, three things happen. First, the software giant proudly trumpets a laundry list of widgets, buttons and whiz-bang new menu items. Then the devoted band of techies who follow such things respond, either with horrified disdain at the continued prominence of dinosaur-era bloatware, or with delight that a particular ribbon, print option or spreadsheet shortcut has streamlined their digital lives a sliver. Then the third thing happens. Most people shrug with indifference.

Office 2010 will be in stores by mid-June at a price of $99 to $499, depending on whether you’re a student, a bargain-hunter, or a white-collar spendthrift. It’s a lot different from the first version of Microsoft Office, birthed 20 years ago, which frowned at anything more complex than a few typed words. But if you’re anything like an average computer user, the latest iteration of Microsoft’s crown jewel won’t feel much different from whatever version of the software you’re using now. Most people, in fact, don’t even know what version of Office they’re using, a sign that it doesn’t much matter to them.

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- Insert Web Screenshots

For those getting by with a previous incarnation of Office, hearing that the new version has a slicker ribbon menu might be like finding out that the blue lines on this year’s spiral notebooks are a little darker than they used to be. As long as your writing tool lets you write, they’ll say, little else matters. But even those with Luddite tendencies will admit that there are occasions when Office’s options matter. Without getting mired in technical specifications, here are three specific new 2010 features that come in handy without adding complexity.

The new versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint have a useful “Insert Screenshot” button that lets you easily grab whatever you want from an open Web browser and select either an entire window or whatever portion of the screen you want to paste into your document. You can then edit the image within your document, without having to launch a separate picture-editing program.

- Present Over the Web

PowerPoint now lets you broadcast your slides online with a quick click. There are lots of alternative Web tools, like WebEx, that do this, but some require fees and others are time-consuming to set up. This broadcasting feature doesn’t yet work as well as it should. Any video or audio you include in your slides won’t show up for your viewers, for instance. But this method of sharing slides is a big improvement over having to attach them to an email message, particularly if you want to talk viewers through your presentation.

- Save Documents to the Web

The new version of Office lets you save backup copies of your documents online. That means you can retrieve projects later on, even when you don’t have your computer with you. The Web features aren’t as robust as those offered by Google Docs, which introduced a lot of people to the idea of composing, editing and retrieving documents from a Web page rather than with desktop software. Microsoft may be late to the cloud-computing party, but they give anyone who wants it a whopping 25 GB of free storage, which is more than enough to store tens of thousands of documents, or several new ones created every day for the rest of your life.

There are plenty of other little improvements. Excel junkies will like a new feature called “Sparklines” that lets you add small visual icons to help clarify trends in complex data sets. And anyone who uses Outlook will appreciate being able to clean up or ignore e-mail conversations.

There are also aspects of Office that merit improvement, particularly in how it works for novices. The program could do a better job of helping beginners escape the complexity of its menus. When you open the new version of PowerPoint for the first time, you’re greeted by 58 little buttons above the slide palette. That’s counting only the “Home” tab, which is just one of nine top-level menus. Clicking on “Insert” or “Review” surfaces dozens more tools and options.

To Microsoft’s credit, the clarity of the user interface has improved, with more effective icons and descriptive labels. And the process for sharing and reformatting documents is much improved. But the clarity doesn’t stretch far enough. Confronting dozens of mini buttons and icons can be distracting when all you want to do is type out a few bullet points or insert a few images. As powerful as Office has become, the one feature it needs more of is simplicity.

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