Thurrott weighs in on Office 2007 and the Ribbon UI

I was reading the second installment in Paul Thurrott's review of Office 2007 and the following three paragraphs really jumped out at me. I usually don't quote so extensively from someone else's writings but these three concepts really sum up nicely what will be three of the more interesting discussions likely to emerge on Tuesday when the general public will finally have the opportunity to plunk down their hard-earned money for Office 2007 (and Vista).

I was reading the second installment in Paul Thurrott's review of Office 2007 and the following three paragraphs really jumped out at me. I usually don't quote so extensively from someone else's writings but these three concepts really sum up nicely what will be three of the more interesting discussions likely to emerge on Tuesday when the general public will finally have the opportunity to plunk down their hard-earned money for Office 2007 (and Vista).

Overall, the new Ribbon-based UI is a winner. After working with this new UI for months, I'm convinced that it will benefit new users dramatically and help them find features they never knew were even available. And as for experienced Office users like myself, the learning curve is short. Various analysts are still predicting that businesses, especially, will face a lengthy and expensive training experience when they move to Office 2007, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that won't be the case at all. Indeed, I can't wait until other complex and feature-packed applications take advantage of the Ribbon. Adobe, for example, could make Photoshop approachable for mere mortals if they used the Ribbon. I'm sure there are plenty of other similar examples.

More problematic, to me, is that the Ribbonization of Office is incomplete. Outlook, for example, still retains the old menu and toolbar UI in its main application window, though sub-windows pickup the Ribbon. That's confusing, though I'll touch on this topic more in the next part of this review. Too, applications like OneNote, InfoPath, and Publisher haven't been Ribbonized at all. Come on guys, let's get the whole suite moved over.

One final fact to consider: A lot of the people who worked on the Ribbon UI in Office are now responsible for the Windows Shell in the next version of Windows. Who knows? We might see something very much like the Ribbon in Windows itself. That would be fantastic.

In the first paragraph, Thurrott brings up two important points. First, as I have opined here on more than one occassion, he states that concerns about retraining costs (time and money) to bring knowledge workers up to speed on the new UI are overstated. Because I've been working frantically to keep up with the evolution of the Ribbon for my forthcoming Wiley book about Outlook 2007, I've been living with the Ribbon for nearly a year full-time. In that time, I've seen an interesting conceptual leap in HCI (Human Computer Interface) design evolve into a very well-conceived and masterfully polished step forward in the way we interact with Office.

Tangent: With all apologies to my eagle-eyed buddy Chris Pirillo who takes great and occasionally perverse pleasure in pointing out pixel-level inconsistencies in the Office (and especially Outlook) user interface, I stand by the above statement. Few people obsess over details to the degree Chris does. And, while he's always accurate and the depth to which he scrutinizes these things is both impressive and helpful, the fact of the matter is that much of what he says is invisible to most users. That's in no way saying these things shouldn't be fixed – obviously they should and hopefully they will be.

Second, he suggest that other complex applications from third-party developers like Adobe might benefit from the Ribbon-ization of their apps, citing everyone's favorite poster child for complexity – Photoshop – as an example. I don't see this happening. The Ribbon is a competitive advantage and IP asset for Microsoft. I don't see any likely scenario in which Microsoft would see fit to share, or even license, the Ribbon to other developers. Especially one that has been as cranky as Adobe has recently in the whole PDF/XPS spat which reached a new level of churlishness on Adobe's part IMO.

UPDATE: Well, I got that one almost completely wrong. A reader points out that Microsoft has already opened the Ribbon to third parties as long as they're not competing with Office. Based on that qualification and the fluid squirting contest between Adobe and Microsoft last year over PDF in Office, I stand by my projection that you won't see the Ribbon in an Adobe application anytime soon.

Moving on to the second paragraph and topic, Thurrott asks for the rest of Office to be Ribbon-ized as soon as possible. While I agree with the sentiment, it's either the case that he hasn't bothered to read anything the Office UI team (notably Jensen Harris) has written over the past couple of years about why they made the strategic choice to introduce the Ribbon in the core Office applications the way they did (unlikely) or he's playing fast and loose with his readers (sadly the more likely case). As someone who's followed the evolution of both Windows and Office as closely as he has, it can't have escaped his attention how long and arduous a path it's been to reach this milestone. This isn't flipping-a-switch stuff. Rearchitecting an entire application – especially those as feature-rich and complex as Office applications like OneNote, Access, Publisher, or Visio – is a decidedly untrivial undertaking.

I have no doubt Microsoft will continue to Ribbon-ize more of Office over time and am equally without doubt that it won't happen anytime soon. And to Thurrott's specific point about the hybrid approach in Outlook being confusing, I think he's off base. The decision to introduce the Ribbon first in the content authoring and editing components within Outlook has been thoroughly explained and makes perfect sense in daily use. Outlook uses Word as its editor. Therefore, any UI subspace in which you are editing text and graphics is quite obviously the first and most appropriate place for the Ribbon to be integrated.

Outlook's main views do not lend themselves as easily to Ribbon-ization and had the Office team made the decision to take the plunge fully, the product would never have been completed "on time" and would have raised howls of protest from the huge base of Outlook users. Far better to take the incremental approach they have and get Outlook users comfortable with using the Ribbon before converting the application completely to a Ribbon-driven UI. Outlook is unlike any other Office app and the hybrid, incremental approach the Office team decided to take was well though out and is completely defensible. Again, my opinion.

In the third paragraph I've quoted above, Thurrott makes his best and most exciting logical leap. I hadn't really given much thought to what a Ribbon-ized Vista UI might look like. It's a big idea and one I'll need to give some thought to. I have no idea if the migration of some of the Office UI team to the Windows Shell team in any way represents an indication this is something that's being given serious thought in Redmond or not. But an OS interface that contextually adapts to what the user is doing is not without precedent – I've seen small attempts to do that in Windows, Mac OS X, the BeOS and other operating systems in the past. And the usability implications if such a project were to be taken are enormous.

So, all criticism notwithstanding, thanks for the brain food Paul. 

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