Is this the more boring sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Not quite, it’s Microsoft’s latest package of software aimed at helping businesses get more productive.

OK, so remind me, what’s in Office?
It’s the latest version of the Outlook email platform, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access and the SharePoint collaboration technology.

Right, I’m with you now.
About time! Anyway, Office 2010 is now available for businesses, following 8.6 million downloads of the free beta version since it was made available in September 2009.

Nice. So what’s new?
Well as you would expect, Microsoft has tweaked all of the applications within Office – for example the ‘ribbon’ previously seen along the top of some Office apps is now present in all of them.

That doesn’t sound that radical…
There’s more. Take Outlook for example: the email package now includes something called Outlook Social Connector which integrates external social networking options such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn into your email.

Microsoft's business division president Stephen Elop

Microsoft’s business division president Stephen Elop speaking at the official launch of Office 2010 in New York
(Photo credit: Microsoft)

Essentially, when you open an email from a contact, there will be an option to display a feed of that person’s most recent activity on each social network that you’ve opted to connect with via Outlook. Microsoft says this is about bringing the various communications tools onto one dashboard so you can find relevant information more quickly.

Outlook also makes use of Office Communicator which provides presence and status information for people on your contact list: by hovering over a person’s name you can see what they are up to and if they are available to initiate IM conversation or voice calls – without leaving Outlook.

What else is there?
One new feature on a number of Office applications is co-authoring. This means several people can work on a document presentation or spreadsheet simultaneously even if they’re in different locations.

Looking at applications more individually, PowerPoint now allows you to embed video into your presentations to give them a bit more pizzazz.

And the Excel spreadsheet application has a new feature called Sparklines – small in-line charts that fit into single cells to discover trends.

Another new feature is Office Backstage, which according to Microsoft is a way of working with a document without actually editing the content, as you would using the Ribbon. So this includes things like saving and printing but also setting permissions, creating alternative versions, attachments and workflows.

Meanwhile, SharePoint Workspace 2010 replaces Office Groove and is essentially an interface to access your SharePoint team sites and view and edit files. Unlike Groove it incorporates discussion tasks and allows you to synchronise with Business Connectivity Services lists which connect SharePoint sites to external sources of data.

So is there a new version of SharePoint?
Yes, it was also launched on 12 May. SharePoint 2010 is a development of the system that allows you to create websites through which to share information and collaborate with different work teams.

Microsoft also made its Visio 2010 visualisation software and Project 2010 project management technology available on the same day.

And what about this cloud computing thing? Does Office 2010 take that into account?
It does. The growing popularity of Google Apps in particular has forced Microsoft to respond by making Office available as a hosted set of applications.

With Office Web Applications (OWA) you can now access Office 2010 applications Word, Excel and PowerPoint remotely. Consumers can access OWA through Windows Live but business users access OWA documents via a browser which draws the documents from a central SharePoint Library and opens an Office interface within the browser.

The OWA interface within the browser does without a few more advanced Office app features in order to make it more lightweight but users can open their Office apps on their device, edit the document then save it back in SharePoint.

And mobile?
Office Mobile 2010 allows you to access OWA via Windows Phone-equipped smartphones. So you can also access and edit documents without the need to use a laptop.

PowerPoint picture editing

PowerPoint has gained the ability to edit pictures without leaving the application
(Photo credit: Microsoft)

So there are some nice new features but why would my business want to shell out on an upgrade?
A lot of people would ask the same question. Of course Microsoft says the productivity gains from using Office 2010 will be enough reason alone. Microsoft claims that using Office 2010 can save two weeks of time per person per year in terms of productivity gains.

Microsoft commissioned Forrester Research to look into the productivity benefits of using Office 2010. Forrester found that an average business with 5,000 employees could save $7m over a three-year period due to productivity gains from rolling out Office 2010. The co-authoring capability alone is estimated to contribute around $3m over that period.

And how much will it cost me to upgrade to Office 2010?
Many businesses will be able to upgrade without extra cost through their Software Assurance programme. Volume licensing pricing has yet to be announced.

There are three versions of Office 2010: Office Home and Student, Office Home and Business and Office Professional.

The pre-installed versions will undercut the boxed versions with Home and Student at £89.99 and the more feature-heavy versions, Home and Office and Professional coming in at £189.99 and £299.99 respectively.

The boxed versions of Office 2010 will start at £109.99 for Home and Student, rising to £239.99 for Home and Office and £429.99 for Professional.

Microsoft is changing the approach for pre-installed versions of Office 2010 – the way the majority of small businesses and consumers are likely to buy the software.

When purchasing the PC, buyers will receive a product key for their chosen version of Office 2010. When the user sets up the PC they use the number to unlock the pre-loaded software.