First Take: Microsoft Office 2010 beta

The Microsoft Office 2010 beta was released today and though there aren't many major changes from the Technical Preview in July, there are some new features and enhancements worthy of note.

The Microsoft Office 2010 beta was released Wednesday, and though there aren't many major changes from the Technical Preview from July, there are some new features and enhancements worthy of note. This post will focus on the changes to the beta, but if you want a larger overview of new features across all the applications, check out our rundown of the Microsoft Office 2010 Technical Preview.

Outlook is the cornerstone of many companies' communications and daily schedules, and as such received a lot of enhancements in Office 2010. In the beta version, Microsoft has added even more ways to connect with coworkers and contacts. The new Outlook Social Connector is an added information pane that gives you more info about everyday contacts. Once set up, you'll be able to view pictures of contacts (even in large cc lists), previous conversations, attachments shared, meetings attended, and much more. Though not complete in the beta, Microsoft says the Outlook Social Connector will soon be able to connect with social Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, so you can follow status updates and more all in one location.

The Office 2010 Technical Preview introduced the Back Stage view, an enhanced File menu (accessed from the Office Icon tab) that lets you manage your documents, set permissions, and share your projects with colleagues. In the beta version Microsoft has decided to return to calling it the File menu, but with all the functionality and flexibility of Back Stage. They also have made it possible to access all the other tabs in the Ribbon, which were previously inaccessible in the Technical Preview, so you can get to the information you want quickly without the added step of exiting Back Stage.

Also added to the File menu is the capability to save to SkyDrive, a cloud-based storage system with 25GB of space for your documents, so you can access your projects anywhere. Simply log in with your Windows Live ID and you'll be able to manage documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and more, and also be able to edit them using feature-complete Web apps through SkyDrive. According to Microsoft, only a couple of the Web app implementations are available now, but as the Office suite moves closer to a final version, more will become available.

Another new feature that's more technical in nature is Office 2010's new PowerPivot functionality. With PowerPivot you'll be able to pull in data from a huge external source. So let's say you have an enormous database of movie information, for example, sitting on a separate server. With PowerPivot you'll be able to pull in (or stream) the information straight to an Excel Spreadsheet without having to Download all the data. While this might not be useful for all users, those who need to access external databases will appreciate not having to store everything locally. It's also much quicker than transferring all that data to your computer.

Clearly, Office 2010 has big shoes to fill as the communications lifeline for most companies, and the changes we've seen in the 2010 Technical Preview and beta versions definitely put them on the right track. With several interface enhancements for better work flow, inclusion of the Ribbon across all applications in the suite, and the capability to manage and access documents on your desktop, the Web, and even your Windows Mobile handset, Office 2010 is taking advantage of today's technologies to help you do you work anywhere. Check back for more information about Microsoft Office 2010 as we near the release of the product in the first half of next year.

About Jason Parker

Jason Parker has been at CNET for more than 13 years. He is the Senior Editor in charge iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.