Microsoft Office 2010: Who will take the upgrade plunge and why?

At a posh, invitation-only bash in New York City on Wednesday, Microsoft launched Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010. In so doing, the company touted many of the oft-repeated benefits around collaboration, employee productivity, and cost reduction. But more and more, it's relying on the products' own users to make its case.

The new Office apps made their premiere at the historic NBC Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center -- the home of everyone from Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven's 9th, to Chet and David calling the 1960 election, to Betty White wowing the crowd on Saturday Night Live just last week. To this illustrious roster, Microsoft this week added an ordinary customer -- Wolfje Van Dijk of Netherlands-based KPN/Getronics, its lead-off speaker.

Later, during a panel discussion, users from NBC's (current) parent General Electric, Del Monte Foods, and Australia's New South Wales Dept. of Education and Training chimed in on attesting to Office and SharePoint 2010's advantages. Yet even at the start of the event, some users present in the room weren't entirely convinced over the need to upgrade.

"Under current license agreements, we can continue to use Office 2003 for free," said Kathleen Gulley, an administrative systems manager at the large New York City-based law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, LLP. "Microsoft would need to make a compelling case for us to upgrade." Joining me in the audience Wednesday, Gulley told me that although she'd been beta testing some of the new capabilities in Office 2010, she'd signed up to go to the launch just to see if there were more features.

Is there enough change?

Canadian-based IT solutions provider Telus has already proceeded with a company-wide deployment of SharePoint 2010. But a decision to migrate from Office 2007 to Office 2010 hasn't yet been reached, said Dan Pontefract, Telus' senior director for learning, during an interview with me at the rollout.

In kicking off the launch party, KPN's Van Dijk told the assembled customers and journalists that her company will deploy Office 2010 in order to better "invest in our productivity." With PowerPoint 2010, for instance, KPN has been able to cut the time it takes to produce a presentation to only an hour or two, according to Van Dijk, a strategist at the telecommunications firm.

"Office 2010 is a brilliant innovation. Today is a great moment," she enthused.

Microsoft Business Division President Stephen Elop, at the Office 2010 launch at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, May 12, 2010.

Taking the stage next, Stephen Elop, president of Microsoft's Business Division, contended that his company's 2010 lineup of products will suit the needs of a world that's changed in myriad ways in only the past few years. Elop suggested that the social networking and other collaborative functionality in the 2010 products is prompted in large part by the "arrival of a Millennial generation who communicate quite differently than we do."

But about 80% of all employees -- across all age groups -- use social networking tools when they're not at work, according to Elop: "Employees expect the same technologies in the office as at home." Meanwhile, particularly in today's tough economic climate, businesses are looking for "demonstrable return on investment," Elop maintained.

The leader of the Microsoft division responsible for Office and SharePoint cited the results of a Forrester Research study showing that use of the 2010 releases of Microsoft Office, SharePoint, Microsoft Project, and Visio -- all released to general availability this week -- will result in an overall return on investment of 301%, with a payback period of just 7.4 months after deployment.

Microsoft will offer the 2010 generation of Office technology both as software and as a cloud-based hosting service, Elop said. But at a press Q&A session later, Chris Capossela, senior VP of Microsoft's Information Worker Product Management Group, acknowledged that the hosted service won't be available until the end of this year.

During the launch, Capossela demo'd a number of new capabilities in the Office 2010 family. New features in Outlook, for example, let users convert voice mail to e-mail as well as manage their "conversations" to the point of cleaning out redundant entries in conversation threads and even ridding their mailboxes of any unwanted threads.

Moreover, in an obvious nod to online collaborative apps from Google and Zoho, multiple users can now work on Excel spreadsheets, for instance,
collaboratively and simultaneously. In another crowd-pleaser, you can now edit videos for use in presentations from directly within PowerPoint.

Capossela also showed how, through the use of the new Microsoft Office Web Apps, PowerPoint presentations can now be distributed to other users of PowerPoint client software, in addition to Windows Mobile phones and multi-platform browsers, including a Firefox browser running on an Apple Mac. Web Apps is an online companion to Microsoft PowerPoint, Word, Excel and OneNote.

Office 2010 also offers a simpler ribbon interface than Office 2007, along with stronger integration among its various apps, according to Capossela.

As for SharePoint, key enhancements include new blogging capabilities, Facebook-like tagging, presence awareness, the ability to categorize users as experts or novices in particular subject areas, and improved search functionality based on technology obtained through Microsoft's buyout of Fast Search & Transfer back in 2008.

Next: Some users will upgrade, others not so sure...

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