Gives The "Ribbon" A Try is trying on a new user interface for size. Guess what it looks almost exactly like?

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

August 7, 2009

3 Min Read is trying on a new user interface for size. Guess what it looks almost exactly like?If you said, "Microsoft Office 2007," give yourself the day off. From OS News: The revamped Office 2007 user interface drew praise all around the world, but at the same time, people who were too entrenched in the Office 2003-type UI were intimidated by it, and declared it a failure because they had to re-learn their ways. However, if you actually take the time, and have an open mind, I can't imagine it not becoming clear to you that the ribbon is miles ahead of any other office suite UI out there.

So, the guys over at Sun are working on prototyping a new user interface too [.odp]. They have more or less the same design goals as the Microsoft Office team had, and what do you know, they come up with prototypes that are about as close to the ribbon interface as you can get.

OS News writes that the Office ribbon interface "raised quite a number of eyebrows" when Microsoft introduced it. That's an understatement -- when the ribbon appeared, some Office users practically rioted.

I have to admit that my opinion of the ribbon has evolved considerably. At first, I thought it was about as elegant as a two-headed calf. Today, I think the ribbon is an effective, highly usable solution to a nagging problem: How do you handle an application with hundreds of commands and a briar-patch menu structure?

And honestly, it would be silly not to acknowledge that Microsoft wouldn't have changed the Office UI so radically unless its own usability testing had shown some clear and conclusive results.

Readers who commented on the OS News article gave the OOo prototype predictably mixed reviews. Some people -- mostly those who use Office 2007 at least occasionally -- see it as a smart move. Most, however, lambasted the OOo development team (i.e. Sun Microsystems) for copycatting what they see as a sorry excuse for innovation.

The problem is that is walking a tightrope. On one hand, it must satisfy users who deliberately eschew all things Office in favor of an open-source alternative. On the other hand, OOo simply won't succeed unless it gives restless Office users a smooth, intuitive migration path.

For better or for worse, that means addressing -- and matching -- the soup-to-nuts UI changes Microsoft introduced with the ribbon.

And I don't think it's a bad move by any means. faces the same UI challenges Microsoft faced with Office, as it struggles to manage an application with hundreds of menu-based commands.

Other alternatives for addressing this challenge exist. Another open-source business productivity suite, KOffice, employs a distinctive, and truly innovative, approach to its user interface. Yet while many KOffice users are extremely fond of it, new users -- especially those moving over from Office 2007 -- face a relatively steep learning curve. clearly has decided that UI innovation will have to take a back seat, at least for the time being, to compatibility with Microsoft Office. It's a decision that will leave a lot of people feeling unhappy or even betrayed. But I still think it's the right move.

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