Office 2010: Productivity, Productivity, Productivity

If Steve Ballmer had been presenting Office 2010 today, he might have riffed on his old “developers, developers, developers” line with a quip about “productivity, productivity, productivity.” That’s the focus of the new version of Microsoft’s (s msft) flagship suite of office tools, which is now available to business customers worldwide — and which Microsoft is hoping offers enough productivity enhancements to persuade firms to upgrade.

It wasn’t Ballmer presenting the Office 2010, though, it was Stephen Elop, president of Redmond’s business division. I was hoping to get a chance to see what he had to say about the new versions at the launch event in New York, but it seems that interest in the launch (from the press at least) was so great that the website couldn’t deal with the demand.

Fortunately, however, I’ve already had a chance to check out the product, as Office 2010 has been available as a Technical Preview since July of last year. I’ve been impressed with the new features, and early hands-on reviews have also mostly been very positive. There are no huge changes to the main desktop products in this version of Office, unlike the radical introduction of the ribbon UI in Office 2007 (which, incidentally, Microsoft is persisting with in Office 2010, and extending to more products in the Office 2010 family). Most of the effort has gone towards productivity and ease-of-use tweaks (like Outlook’s neat new “Social Connector,” which pulls social network updates into the app), new collaborative features and stability improvements.

The big news in Office 2010 is the introduction of Office Web Apps. Office 2010 has a number of innovative online competitors now, not least of which is, of course, Google Docs (s goog). Microsoft has responded to that threat by releasing access-anywhere online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, with seamless transitioning of work from desktop to the cloud and back again. Despite perhaps coming a little late to the party, Office Web Apps is an impressive suite of products. They work cross-browser, and I particularly like the way that the web apps look and feel almost identical to the desktop versions of Office. I also really like Office’s new co-authoring features, which enable more than one person to work on a document simultaneously. Office Web Apps will be available to everyone for free, but to get the full benefit of the products, you do need to have the desktop Office 2010, too.

Despite the perceived threat of Google Docs, the greatest competitor to Office 2010 is probably previous versions of Office. Although Office 2010 is a very solid and polished upgrade, with plenty of new features and improved performance and stability, Microsoft might find it hard to convince cost-sensitive businesses that they really need to upgrade to this latest version, just as many businesses didn’t upgrade from Office 2003 when Office 2007 was launched. Will the new Office Web Apps, the productivity-boosting tweaks and other collaborative features prove to be enough to persuade them to open their wallets for the new version?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution