The next version of Microsoft's Office, Office XP, is due out later this spring, but a beta version called Office 10 is currently available for evaluation. Office 10 features all the applications you've come to know and love-such as Word, Excel, Power-Point, Outlook and Access-but in new and improved versions.
With Office 10, the differences aren't immediately apparent. The interface has a slightly more modern look but no major changes. Once you start using the applications, however, you'll find notable, new ease-of-use tools; improved collaboration features; more Web integration; and improved overall stability.
Smart tags and the Task Pane are two new features that make using Office applications easier. Smart tags are icons that sit below the text that you've pasted or entered incorrectly. By clicking on them, you can view the corrections the application made or choose the formatting for pasted text.
The Task Pane sits on the right side of the screen, offering some of the key functions you had to access through the pull-down menus in previous versions. You can minimize it or allow it to float around your screen if it takes up too much space.
Word, in particular, offers enhanced collaboration features, including a new Send for Review tool and improved Compare and Merge features. These features allow delegation of simultaneous editing to multiple parties, while the owner can merge, accept or reject changes from any author. Office 10 also allows you to recover and save your documents as soon as an error occurs.
Office 10 is just a preview version, so it's hard to predict what the final applications will be. One thing's for sure: The final version will feature voice- and handwriting- recognition features that aren't available in the preview.
Liane Gouthro, a former technology reporter at PCWorld.com, freelances from her home in Brookline, Massachusetts.