Microsoft 'ribbonizes' Windows 8 file manager

Shows changes to Explorer's UI, says it won't do compatibility mode

Microsoft today said it will "ribbonize" the file manager in next year's Windows 8, adding Explorer to the short list of integrated applications that already sport the interface in Windows 7.

In another post in a series the company has been using to disclose some Windows 8 details, Microsoft's Alex Simons, director of program management, showed screenshots of the new ribbon interface planned for Explorer.

"We evaluated several different UI [user interface] command affordances including expanded versions of the Vista/Windows 7 command bar, Windows 95/Windows XP style toolbars and menus, several entirely new UI approaches, and the Office style ribbon," explained Simons . "Of these, the ribbon approach offered benefits in line with our goals."

The ribbon-style interface planned for Explorer -- Windows' built-in file manager -- will look similar what debuted in Office 2007, was tweaked in Office 2010 and showed up in some applications bundled with Windows 7, notably the bare-bones Paint program.

Microsoft has also back-ported ribbon functionality to Windows Vista two years ago to allow third-party developers to craft one interface for software targeting both Vista and Windows 7.

In all these designs, a wide ribbon-like display at the top of a window replaces the traditional drop-down menus, small icons and toolbars that have standardized Windows applications' look-and-feel for decades.

Plans by Microsoft and others -- including Mozilla at one point -- to ribbonize applications have often met resistance. Complaints about Office 2007's use of the interface were fierce, but the griping was lighter when Office 2010 and Windows 7 introduced changes.

Simons acknowledged that Explorer's new look might meet opposition. "We knew that using a ribbon for Explorer would likely be met with skepticism by a set of power users, but there are clear benefits," he said.

Most of the comments appended Monday to Simons' blog were upbeat about a ribbon-esque Explorer in Windows 8, but there were some complaints, primarily about the amount of screen real estate the new interface would devour.

"The ribbon is a nice shiny new UI with big buttons and lots of color, but how will it work on a notebook with limited real estate?" asked a commenter named Toby on Monday. "Given that we're moving so much into mobile computing, I don't understand why they'd sacrifice so much real estate."

Simons countered, saying that Microsoft's data -- obtained from millions of Windows people who agree to provide telemetry on how they use the operating system -- showed that 83% of users run Windows 7 on a widescreen display. The new Explorer has been designed to make use of the screen's width and minimize the vertical space it consumes.

And like the ribbon in other Microsoft products, the one in Explorer will be collapsible.

The new look should also work better in situations when users opt to run Windows 8 in touch mode, Simons added. "As it so happens, while not primarily a touch interface, the ribbon also provides a much more reliable and usable touch-only interface than pull-down menus and context menus," Simons said.

One thing Microsoft won't do in is offer the old-style Explorer interface alongside the new ribbonized design.

Simons said that was simply too much work.

"We've learned over many product cycles that the work to provide this significantly impacts the evolution of the product," said Simons said. "These are tradeoffs we make in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, and are not meant to be forceful or painful in any way. We are fully aware of the responsibility that comes from changing an interface used by so many people."

Microsoft has been mum about a release schedule for Windows 8, although analysts expect it to launch next year. Microsoft may reveal more about the new OS and perhaps issue a preview at its Build conference, which begins Sept. 13 in Anaheim, Calif.

Read more about windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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