It's hard to compete with a free price tag, even for the best selling piece of software five years running. To fight the rise of Google Docs, Microsoft is dropping the price of Office … to nothing.

Office 2010, known sometimes by the codename "Office 14," will include slimmed-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that let people create and edit documents in a Web browser. Consumers will have access to free, ad-supported versions of these apps, which offer a limited but still fairly robust version of the Office experience.

But don't take Microsoft's word (get it?) on how these tools compare to Google's offerings. Give it a shot yourself: Redmond just unveiled the public beta of Office 2010, meaning you can download a limited duration free copy of the popular software suite and try it out for yourself.

SLIDESHOW: Inside the Microsoft Office 2010 beta

The biggest change 2010 brings to the world of Microsoft Office is clearly the new online tools, but these aren't actually a part of the Office 2010 beta. Office Web Apps —the officially name for the online tools — are scheduled to be released at the same time as the Office 2010 software (pricing and final release date are still to be determined). But you won't need a copy of Office to use them. In fact, you don't ever need to buy Office at all, if the limited online versions work for you.

Microsoft claims you'll be able to create, edit, and simultaneously work on documents without even having a copy of Office installed on your computer. Web versions of the Excel and PowerPoint tools already exist; to use them today, save a file from one of the Office 2010 apps directly to SkyDrive, Microsoft's online file storage space. Then visit the file from any browser, anywhere you go, and click the edit button to bring up editing options. In the near future, Microsoft says you'll be able to create Word, Excel, and other documents directly online.

In other news, Outlook fans will appreciate a new Social Connector feature, which brings the e-mail and calendaring program into the world of social networking. It lets you sync contact data with popular social networks, sharing status, pictures of the people on an email thread, shared online documents, and more. Well, it will soon, Microsoft claims. At present, the brand new feature supports only Microsoft's SharePoint servers, and only the 2010 beta version at that.

Office 2010 Also adds a very neat "broadcast" function for PowerPoint presentations. The feature uploads your presentation to a secure website and gives you a unique URL to it; pass the URL to your friends or colleagues to create an impromptu presentation from wherever you are. It's a very convenient way to collaborate.

There are many other smaller improvements, of course, such as Excel's Sparklines—a new data visualization technique that adds little trend lines into individual cells—and many new text effects for Word, not to mention the video editing function now built into PowerPoint.

So should you rush out and download the new software? If you're considering upgrading when 2010 is finalized and released, this might be a good opportunity to become familiar with the new interface, introduced in Office 2007. If you think the free versions could offer what you need, hold off and see what's in store. In either case, Office 2010 could offer an intriguing new change.