Windows 8 sneak peek -- do tiles and ribbons mix?

Bits and pieces of the Windows 8 user interface have been revealed over the last several months, showing two very different directions for Microsoft's next operating system. One the one hand, it will include a tiled interface, similar to the one employed by Windows Phone 7. On the other, it will include a heavier use of the Ribbon. Can these interfaces coexist or will Windows 8 resemble the classic joke about a camel being a horse designed by committee?

Back at the All Things D conference in June, Microsoft unveiled a Windows 8 start screen that looks very much like the Windows Phone 7 tiled interface. Applications are represented as tiles, and those tiles can have information piped into them, such as new emails, Twitter feeds, and so on. Microsoft refers to this as Metro.

Several days ago, Microsoft showed off a ribbonized version of the Windows Explorer file manager. In a blog post about the new design, Alex Simons, director of program management for Microsoft, says that use of the ribbon will "allow us to create an optimized file manager where commands would have reliable, logical locations in a streamlined experience."

But a ribbon interface is very different from a tiled one, and use of both interfaces may appear to be inconsistent. After all, tiles and ribbons serve very different purposes, tiles to let you see information at a glance, with quick interactions, and ribbons for presenting a vast amount of features and possibilities in a small, manageable amount of real estate.

I don't they're inherently inconsistent. One can easily imagine an interface in which the high-level functions are tile-like and pump constantly changing information into live tiles for quick overviews, but when you get down to the application level, the ribbon interface takes over.

Windows President Steven Sinofsky blogged today about how he sees the Metro tiled interface working with the Ribbon, and he said that "Having both of user interfaces together harmoniously is an important part of Windows 8." He talks about the ways in which he sees the two types of interfaces working with one another. One key is that you'll be able to switch between two types of interfaces -- Metro and the traditional interface. He writes, "If you want to, you can seamlessly switch between Metro style apps and the improved Windows desktop."

It's all a bit unclear about how it will all fit together. But in theory I don't see any inherent conflict between the two interfaces. As to practice, for that we'll have to wait and see.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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