OpenOffice.org and the 'Ribbons' Interface Brouhaha

An OpenOffice feature apparently inspired by Microsoft Office has generated a hostile chorus of no votes.
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Two weeks ago, Project Renaissance, the OpenOffice.org team tasked with overhauling the interface of the popular free office application, unveiled its first prototype. The prototype resembled the Ribbon interface first introduced in Microsoft Office 2007, and the denunciations came so fast that few bothered to check the facts, or to give the idea any serious consideration.

542 people responded to the unveiling, many of them hostile to the very idea of Ribbons in OpenOffice.org (OOo). "Why is OOo aping Office 2007's 'Ribbon' design?" The first commenter asked, and the second, "This would be a killer feature for not using OpenOffice.org."

Some posters tried to discuss the prototype and the design decisions behind it, but similar comments reoccurred like a chorus. OpenOffice.org was simply imitating MS Office, some said. Others said that the application was oversimplifying, and catering too much to new users. The reaction spread quickly, as Internet memes do, and, before long, the negative comments found their way into the media, and sites were reporting as a given that OpenOffice.org would be switching to a Ribbon interface.

In the middle of the uproar, almost everybody managed to overlook one tiny detail: It wasn't necessarily happening.

A month before the prototype's release, Andreas Bartel, one of the members of Project Renaissance, blogged that "we decided to keep some sort of a menu in the new UI," and, sure enough, the prototype sported a menu above the Ribbon. Clearly, then, the changes are unlikely to be as great as those in MS Office 2007.

Moreover, if the changes looked extreme, a large part of the reason is that the prototype concentrated on Impress, the slide show application, which has the most cluttered interfaces in all of OpenOffice.org. Simplifying the interface as much in Writer or Calc would hardly be possible without throwing out many of the advanced features that users value.

Even more importantly, those who bothered to read Project Renaissance's status report might have noticed that what was released was only the first prototype. Others are to follow -- in fact, another may be released in the next week, according to Renaissance team member Frank Loehmann. Presumably, some of these other prototypes will be among the 17 submissions to the project before the first prototype was released.

Or, to put things even more clearly, John McCreesh, a lead on the OpenOffice.org marketing project, says, "Many commentators have misunderstood the purpose of the first prototype. This is not a chosen finished product. This is the first of a number of alternatives that Renaissance wants to explore with the wider community."

True, Loehmann did originally announce the prototype by saying that the prototype stage was ended, only to write last week that "The prototype phase didn't end on July 4 as originally planned." Given these comments, perhaps Project Renaissance did originally plan to work with a Ribbon interface, and only backed down in the face of overwhelmingly negative comments. If so, then the consultation process that the project is supposed to be following is working -- Renaissance team members are apparently listening to feedback.

But perhaps too much shouldn't be made about a possible slip of the tongue. What matters is that, no matter what the case in the past, today the Ribbon interface is only one possible future for OpenOffice.org.

More important, even if the Ribbon interface is implemented, McCreesh assures me that "We intend the user interface to be user configurable -- e. g., if a user wants to make better use of the real-estate on a wide screen monitor by moving stuff to one side, then they should be able to do it. We know 'one size fits all' doesn't work -- but we do want the default to be enticing to first time users."

For all the energy wasted on reacting to the prototype, apparently the proposed Ribbon interface is neither as inevitable as people fear, nor as rigid as the example in MS Office.

Are Ribbons more usable?

Unfortunately, the instinctive reaction to the prototype has taken the place of most serious discussion about Ribbons. Yet we need this discussion, because, although Ribbons have been around for several years, their pros and cons are still mostly unknown.

Even with the fears debunked, evaluating the Ribbon is difficult. Many people in the free software community reject the concept simply because it comes from Microsoft. More thoughtfully, others point out that free software is never going to get the respect it deserves if it only copies its proprietary rivals. Conversely, some point out that, since the Ribbon is what people know, then that is what OpenOffice.org needs to persuade people to use it.

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Tags: Linux, Microsoft, software, OpenOffice.org

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