In computing, a ribbon is a set of toolbars placed on several tabs. For example, Microsoft and Autodesk software released since 2007 have popularized a form of modular ribbon as their main interface, where large tabbed toolbars, filled with graphical buttons and other controls, are grouped by functionality. Such ribbons use tabs to expose different sets of controls, eliminating the need for many parallel toolbars. Contextual tabs are tabs that appear only when the user needs them. For instance, in a word processor, an image-related tab may appear when the user selects an image in a document, allowing the user to interact with that image.
The usage of the term ribbon dates from the 1980s and was originally used as a synonym for what is now more commonly known as a (non-tabbed) toolbar. However, in 2007, Microsoft Office 2007 used the term to refer its own implementation of tabbed toolbars bearing heterogeneous controls, known as "The Fluent UI". Thus, Microsoft popularized the term with a new meaning, although similar tabbed layouts of controls had existed in previous software from other vendors. The considerable redesign of the Office user interface caused a backlash and a rejection from some users of previous versions of Microsoft products, as well as from developers because of concerns about copyright and patents.
Use of a ribbon interface dates from the early 1990s in productivity software such as Microsoft Word and Wordstar as an alternative for toolbar: It was defined as a portion of a graphical user interface consisting of a horizontal row of controls (e.g. including heterogeneously-sized buttons and drop-down lists bearing icons), typically user-configurable.
A toolbar interface, called the ribbon, has been a feature of Microsoft Word from the early DOS-based Word 5.5 (ca. 1990) and the first Windows-based versions (activated by the "View | Ribbon" menu option), for which early advertising referred to the use of "the Ribbon to replace an endless string of commands to let you format characters by eye instead of memory".
With the release of Microsoft Office 2007 came the "Fluent User Interface" or "Fluent UI", which replaced menus and customizable toolbars with a single "Office menu", a miniature toolbar known as "quick-access toolbar" and what came to be known as the ribbon: Multiple tabs, each holding a toolbar bearing buttons and occasionally other controls. Toolbar controls have heterogeneous sizes and are classified in visually distinguishable groups. The name ribbon was later purported to have originated from an early design idea by which commands were placed on a long pane, that could be rolled like a medieval scroll; the name was retained after the scrolling mechanism was replaced by tabs.
Microsoft applications implementing ribbons each have a different set of tabs which house user controls for that application. Within each tab, various related controls may be grouped together. Double clicking the active tab or clicking the minimize button hides the command panel, leaving only the tabs visible. Repeating this action reveals the pane. The ribbon consolidates the functionality previously found in menus, toolbars and occasionally task panes into one area.
In Microsoft Office 2007, only Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint implemented ribbons. With the release of Microsoft Office 2010, however, ribbons were implemented in the rest of the Microsoft Office applications. Customization support for ribbons was also initially limited. On Microsoft Office 2007, ribbon could only be customized through a hack, by adding a "customUI" RibbonX xml file document to an Office Open XML document type. MicrosoftOffice 2010 added end-user customization support to its user interface.
Microsoft gradually implemented ribbons in other software. The fourth wave of Windows Live Essentials applications, including as Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and Writer, featured a ribbon. On Windows 7, Paint and WordPad feature ribbons. On Windows 8, File Explorer followed suit. Ribbons also appeared in SQL Server Report Builder, Dynamics CRM 2011, Microsoft WebMatrix and Microsoft Mathematics v4.0. As of 2013[update], however, Internet Explorer, Notepad and Visual Studio did not implement a ribbon.
Other software developers
Since the introduction of ribbons in Microsoft Office 2007, there has been an uptake of this type of interface in applications created by other developers, especially those creating tools for Microsoft related products. Microsoft facilitated the adoption with the release of Windows 7 and the Windows Vista platform update, which included built-in ribbon framework APIs, introduced to allow developers to integrate a ribbon toolbar into their applications. The Nielsen Norman Group published some examples in a 2008 GUI showcase report.
In June 2008 Red Flag Software released RedOffice 4.0 beta, a Chinese fork of OpenOffice.org including a new user interface sharing many design ideas of ribbon. In November 2008 Sun Microsystems started the project Renaissance to improve the user interface of OpenOffice.org. So far the prototypes of the project are frequently seen as similar to ribbons, but this has resulted in some criticism from users.
Prior to the introduction of ribbons in Office 2007, the user interface for its Office suites had barely changed since the introduction of Office 97 on 19 November 1996. (Office 2000 and Office 2003 released relatively minor upgrades compared to Office 97, which itself was considered to be something of a milestone compared to the Office 95).
Because of this, users became accustomed to this style of interface, as was common on many productivity products at the time. When Microsoft implemented ribbons, it was met with mixed reactions. Redmondmag.com reported that power users feel the ribbons take "too much time and patience to learn." Richard Ericson from Computerworld noted that experienced users might find difficulties adapting to the new interface, and that some tasks take more key-presses or clicks to activate. Though the ribbon can be hidden by double-clicking on the open tab, PC World wrote that the ribbons crowds the Office work area, especially for notebook users; the customization options available in the original version didn't allow users to rearrange or remove the predefined commands, although it can be minimized. Others have called its large icons distracting. An online survey conducted by ExcelUser reports that a majority of respondents had a negative opinion of the change, with advanced users being "somewhat more negative" than intermediate users; the self-estimated reduction in productivity was an average of about 20%, and "about 35%" for people with a negative opinion.
A reason behind the negative reaction is Microsoft's decision to abandon backward-compatibility with previous versions and remove the traditional menu system, rather than leaving it as an option that could be activated if needed. Users of previous versions had to relearn the user interface in order to accomplish what they already knew how to do, and some configuration options were eliminated. The decision to abolish menus has been likened to the Coca-Cola company's infamous New Coke campaign in its abandonment of the existing user base. Microsoft Office 2011 for the Macintosh, while employing the ribbon, also retains the menu system in the Mac menu bar.
Other users claim that once the new interface is learned, the average user can create "professional-looking documents faster". One study reported fairly good acceptance by users except highly experienced users and users of word processing applications with a classical WIMP interface, but was less convinced in terms of efficiency and organisation. Microsoft has released a series of small programs, help sheets, videos and add-ins to help users learn the new interface more quickly, and the Office 2010 version allows users to partially--but not fully--configure the Ribbon tabs and commands.
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Additional criticisms[by whom?] of the ribbon include:
- The presence of a "Quick Access Toolbar" option (in reality, a traditional toolbar) above the ribbon, calling into question the effectiveness of the ribbon in the first place.
- Unlike a menu, which automatically disappears after being accessed, the ribbon toolbar now requires an extra click to minimize.
- No "strumming." In a menu-based GUI, users can rapidly glance through menus with a single click by holding down the left mouse button, and "strum" through "File," "Edit," etc. to navigate to what they are looking for. With the ribbon toolbar, viewing each tab requires a separate click.
- The ribbon toolbar is an inconsistent collection of large and small icons, some with text; some without. It is also based on Microsoft's premature assumption that their eclectic grouping of items is what most users will want. For many, these assumptions and lack of GUI consistency only add to the confusion, which does not lend itself to a professional user-focused interface.
- The ribbon absorbs more vertical space than simple menus; an obvious problem on widescreen monitors where vertical space is more valuable.
Mike Gunderloy, a former Microsoft contractor, left the company and ceased using its software partially over his disagreement with the company's "sweeping land grab" including its attempt to patent the ribbon.[dead link] He refused to "contribut[e] to the eventual death of programming." He states: "Microsoft itself represents a grave threat to the future of software development through its increasing inclination to stifle competition through legal shenanigans." Proponents of free software, such as KDE developer Jarosław Staniek have expressed beliefs that the patent cannot be acquired due to the ambiguity of prior art. As no patent has been acquired yet[update], they assert that anyone who has not signed the license can legally implement the concept in their applications without having to conform to Microsoft's requirements. Staniek notes that the ribbon concept has historically appeared extensively as "tabbed toolbars" in applications such as Sausage Software's HotDog, Macromedia HomeSite, Dreamweaver and Borland Delphi. Lotus developed early ribbon UIs for its product eSuite. Screen shots are still available in an IBM redbook about eSuite (page 109ff).
- Ribbon Hero and Ribbon Hero 2 – Microsoft's education video games that train the users on ribbons
- Metro (design language) – Another Microsoft attempt in popularizing a dramatically different UI design
- Windows Aero – Microsoft user interface design concept for Windows
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- Illingworth, Valerie (11 December 1997). Dictionary of Computing. Oxford Paperback Reference (4th ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192800466. "Ribbon [...] a horizontal row of control icons that can often be redefined to suit the user's requirements."
- InfoWorld 12 (6). InfoWorld Media Group. 5 February 1990. p. 15. ISSN 0199-6649. "A liberal collection of icons located on the Ribbon replaces an endless string of commands [...]"
- ESPRIT '88: putting the technology to use : proceedings of the 5th Annual ESPRIT Conference, Brussels, November 14-17, 1988, Part 2. North-Holland. 1988. ISBN 978-0-444-87145-9. Retrieved 28 May 2013. "[...] a ribbon that contains labeled icons (64×64 bit maps) representing tasks and tools that has been instantiated by the user. Each tasktool is represented by a different icon."
- InfoWorld 13 (3). InfoWorld Media Group. 21 January 1991. p. 15. ISSN 01996649. Retrieved 28 May 2013. "We've even added a handy new feature, called the ribbon."
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- "Renaissance/FAQ (revision 154410)". OpenOffice.org. Apache Software Foundation. 5 January 2010. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Lai, Eric (11 August 2009). "Open-source users revolt over OpenOffice ribbon UI". Computerworld. Fairfax Media.
- Cummings, Joanne (1 October 2007). "Word 2007: Not Exactly a Must-Have". Redmond Magazine. 1105 Media. Retrieved 28 May 2013. "For one thing, Word 2007 uses the entirely new ribbon interface. Power users say it takes too much time and patience to learn. [...] 'People will get used to the new interface, but at major efforts in time, training and cost,' says Mike McCullough, director of systems at Cooling Systems Technologies (CST) Inc. [...] When it came time to move her from 2003 to 2007, he quickly ran into problems. 'I might as well of hit her over the head with a bat,' he says. 'I could see anger and frustration.' [...] Other readers feel it's worth taking the time to learn the new interface."
- Lasky, Michael (August 2006). "Office Beta: Good Looks, Tricky Formats". PC World (IDG): 24.
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- Mendelson, Edward (July 2006). "MS Office Edges Closer". PC Magazine (Ziff Davis) 25 (12): 48.
- Kyd, Charley (May 2009). "Ribbon survey results". ExcelUser.com. ExcelUser.
- Franks, Dale (26 March 2007). "Office 2007: First Look". The QandO Blog.[self-published source?]. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Schuler, Dave (27 March 2007). "Is Office the New Coke?". Outside the Beltway.[self-published source?]. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- "Word for Mac 2011 top features tour". Mactopia. Microsoft. Retrieved 28 May 2013. "See screenshot"
- Dostál, M (9 December 2010). User Acceptance of the Microsoft Ribbon User Interface. Palacký University of Olomouc. ISBN 978-960-474-245-5. ISSN 1792-6157. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- "Office Labs: Search Commands". Download Center. Microsoft. 15 December 2011. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
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- Harkins, Susan (28 June 2011). "Five tips for customizing the Office 2010 Ribbon". TechRepublic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- For example, US application US20060036965, Harris; Butcher & Morton et al., "Command user interface for displaying selectable software functionality controls", published 16 February 2006 [dead link]
- Gunderloy, Mike (28 July 2008). "Veteran developer ditches Microsoft for open source". Open World 2010.[self-published source?]. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- "What's Going On Here?". A Fresh Cup.[self-published source?]. 8 December 2006. Archived from the original on 11 September 2007.
- Papadimoulis, Alex (12 September 2006). "Mike Gunderloy on Access Perfection". The Daily WTF.[self-published source?]. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Staniek, Jarosław (13 November 2005). "KDE to sue MS over Ribbon GUI?". kdedevelopers.org. KDE. Retrieved 28 May 2012.
- Weller, Mike (22 November 2006). "Office 2007 UI License". Slashdot (Dice Holdings). Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- "Is Microsoft's new ribbon UI copied from eSuite's UI?". BlogNew. Genii Software. 29 November 2006. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Jensen Harris (2005–2008). "An Office User Interface Blog". Microsoft Developer Network. Retrieved 25 March 2010. – Extensive discussion of the UI design by Microsoft's Group Program Manager of the Office 2007 User Experience team.
- "MIX08 Microsoft Office 2007: The Story of the Ribbon". Microsoft MIX 08. 2008. Retrieved 17 June 2010. – Prototype sketches and design process.