- The entire suite gets a visual refresh with the new Ribbon interface and template gallery. All the apps in the package also gain new photo editing/retouching capabilities to speed up image work in your documents. The Ribbon is obviously one of the more contentious features that's come over from the Windows Office side, with power users decrying it for getting in the way; at least, if you don't like it, you can turn it off from the View menu or with a quick option-command-R. For some background on how and why Microsoft moved to the new approach, check out this presentation from one of Office 2007's UI team leads.
- On the cloud front, the Office 2011 license includes 25 GB of storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive service, with the option to save your documents directly to SkyDrive or to corporate SharePoint installations for immediate shareability. Along with the online storage, the company has implemented lean versions of the entire suite as web apps -- meaning you or your collaborators can make quick edits and changes on remote machines without even having Office installed. In Word or the other apps, you can leverage the sharing space to actually co-author a document; you and your collaborators can all edit inside the same file simultaneously, with section indicators showing where the other folk are hard at work. This was demoed at Microsoft's launch event in NYC last night, and it's going to be a great selling point for the suite; it's also compatible with Office 2010 on Windows.
- For macro-loving spreadsheet users, Excel (and the rest of the suite) are once again sporting full cross-platform support for Visual Basic scripting, allowing custom solutions built in VB to work once again. VB support was dropped in Office 2008 as the suite went Intel-native. Excel also improves performance on large datasets and adds Sparklines as a display format for quick visibility of data. According to members of the Office product team I spoke to last night, the Excel team worked hard to ensure cross-platform compatibility with Excel 2010 on the Windows side -- going so far as to print copies of a screenshot of compatibility errors from Excel 2008 with a big 'no' symbol over it and put them up on office doors and cubicle walls as a reminder of the team's goal.
- PowerPoint's marquee feature in the new version is Broadcast, a quick and simple web presentation module that allows you to show your decks remotely to anyone with a browser -- it even works with Mobile Safari on the iPhone and iPad, believe it or not. This is going to put a bit of a dent in the WebEx armor. PPT also lets you quickly reorder object layers, and it adds a new souped-up presenter view. There's one feature that both the PPT demonstrator and I were excited about last night, but it's actually not in PPT 2011 -- it's in PowerPoint 2010 on the Windows side, which can finally (finally) play most embedded QuickTime videos again! To give you an idea of how long we've been waiting for this to come back... the most modern QuickTime codec supported in PPT 97 through 2007 was CinePak. Yee-ikes.
- Of course, Office 2011 says goodbye to Entourage and returns Outlook to the Mac, albeit with some strong Entourage-y streaks in its makeup. Outlook supports POP and IMAP accounts along with Exchange 2007 and higher; it includes a new unified inbox, new calendar viewing, coversation threading, .PST file import, a revamped and much more robust database structure (Time Machine-friendly for backups) and better performance than its purple predecessor. The new mail and PIM app is still working through some rough edges, although all the issues I mentioned to program manager Andy Ruff were already on his list to be fixed in the next update. Calendar sync to Sync Services isn't included in this build; the development team wasn't satisfied with how it worked in the code that was ported forward from Entourage, so they decided to rebuild it from the ground up, and it just wasn't ready to roll when the current version was frozen. It's expected to be available in an update soon.
Office 2011 has gotten strong positive reviews from some quarters, and equally strong negative reactions from others. It is an ambitious release, and certainly there are some spots where additional work is needed; overall, though, it seems like a winner. We'll be doing some deeper dives into the individual apps over the next few days and weeks.