Microsoft, purveyor’s of all that’s bad in design generally, have surprised many by offering to license, for free, the new interface for the next version of Windows Office.
This piece of news has passed most news outlets by, as slightly interesting but nothing to write home about.
Many people have concentrated on the irrelevance of Microsoft trying to license the ‘look a feel’ of a GUI. This is something that Apple tried and failed to do many years ago.
Microsoft references certain, “pending utility and design patent claims, copyrights, trade dress and trademark rights” in the license, but common sense states that these copyright issues are a smokescreen for a deeper more subtler reasoning from Redmond.
The official statement from Microsoft contains a clue as to why Microsoft is doing this, “Our goal is to help people so that we end up with a consistent experience across the set of programs that use the ribbon, that use this paradigm, much the same way as Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines established the paradigm of how menus work 15 years ago.”
Note the Apple reference, and this is where our favourite fruit company comes in.
Apple has been the thorn in the side for Microsoft for many years. Do you think Redmond like being seen to be playing catch-up with Apple all the time? This has been illustrated perfectly with the comparisons of Vista to Tiger/Leopard.
After years of work, and countless rethinks & redesigns, all Redmond’s hard work is dismissed even before it is released, as looking ‘very like Mac OS X’.
This must really piss them off. Apparently, when Microsoft envisaged their ‘iPod killer’ – the Zune – the way in which they motivated their Zune team, was to show them that very old video (when Steve Jobs had hair no less), stating that, “Microsoft have no taste.”
We all know how the Zune turned out, but that is by-the-by – I bet a similar discussion has been held over the Mac’s OS.
Microsoft want to differentiate the Windows GUI from Apple’s, and their new, “contribution to the user interface community” as they put it, is the ‘ribbon’.
But it’s not only differentiation that they are aiming for. The ‘ribbon’ effectively does away with the menu metaphor, and relies solely on icons to select parameters. This seems a little odd, a little difficult to grasp, a little, well, crap.
Menus have been one of the most consistent, widely used and most user-friendly aspect of a computers GUI since their inception way back at Xerox Parc. They got it right first time, there is no easier way to navigate through an applications features.
This hasn’t stopped Microsoft though. They are not interested in ease-of-use, or what’s best for the user. They are trying to change the fundamental principles behind a modern computer’s user interface, so they can call it their own, and take it to a place of their choosing, not Apple’s.
They envisage a day where the entire Windows OS and all applications therein use the ribbon metaphor. They are trying to enforce a new GUI on its users not because it’s easy or it enhances the user’s experience, but because it’s in their interests.
A the centre of the Macintosh user experience are menus. It’s one of the big differences between us and them – there’s a menu at the top all the time, which changes dependent on which application you’re in. Even the desktop has a menu, this differs greatly from Windows, where there’s a menu at the top of each window.
Once Microsoft have brainwashed all those poor Windows users into thinking that the ribbon is a better metaphor than the menu, (and they already have a few converts – some commentators are saying that it takes a few days to get the hang of it, and then you get used to it), then Apple will find it even harder to win switchers because the user experience will be totally different.
Then Microsoft have the upper hand on interface design, again, not because it’s better but because they will have the user’s on their side.
One fly in the ointment you might think is that developers might not take the bait. If developers see that menus are a better way of using their application, then they’ll stick to them. But I don’t think so.
Way back, when Adobe Acrobat Reader was first created, it had menus and pallets to manipulate documents. At around version 2 or 3, they changed the interface to what it is today, a confusing morass of little icons on square strips, with little or no indication of what they do. Their reason for this? They looked into who downloaded the Reader, what their favourite application was, and mirrored that user interface. That application was Word.
That’s why, today we are left with Acrobat’s appalling user interface – because of Microsoft useless GUI design.
Mr Jensen Harris, group program manager of the Microsoft Office user experience team, is quoted as saying, “we would like to see it [the ribbon] used as widely as possible because we are proud of our work.”
Everything Microsoft does has an ulterior, unspoken subtext – this is no exception.