Microsoft’s plan for the future: The Ribbon

A few days ago, I saw the leaked screenshots from Windows 7.  Microsoft Paint and Wordpad now “feature” the ribbon bar, just as Office ’07 does.  It finally occurred to me: Microsoft isn’t stupid.  It’s not like they didn’t recognize that the switch to the ribbon in Office ’07 (with no alternative interface) would drive users to OpenOffice.  They are simply investing in their future user base.  They want to lock users into the new system.

This is Microsoft’s plan:

Think about your average Joe Shmoe user for a minute.  Joe has always used Microsoft Office 2003.  One day, Joe’s friend Pete tells him about a “free of cost” application called OpenOffice.  Pete claims that OpenOffice should be easy for Joe to learn, because it works just like Microsoft Office does.  He also mentions that OpenOffice is “Open”, meaning that it won’t ever limit functionality nor restrain the people who he can communicate with.  Joe ends up trying OpenOffice and, realizing that it does indeed work very much like the Microsoft Office he is used to, ends up switching.

If Joe’s friend Pete had never told him about OpenOffice, he would have eventually ended up switching to Microsoft Office ’07 and Windows 7.  While he didn’t want to have to learn the new system, he recognized that it was the future of technology.  If he didn’t learn it soon, modern technology would leave him behind, and he would no longer know how to use computers well.  By the time Microsoft Office ’11 and Windows 8 came, he was all prepared for the upgrade.  Both of these pieces of software used the ribbon as well, so Joe felt right at home.  As time went on, Joe came to accept the fact that the ribbon was “the way computers work”.

Now that Joe is a Windows 8 and Office ’11 user, lets say Pete tells him about OpenOffice.  Joe sees the interface.  It is just like that version of Microsoft Office he used 10 years ago.  “Why can’t they innovate?” he wonders.  After inadequately trying OpenOffice, he finds that he doesn’t remember the old cascading menu system very well anymore.  It has been years since he last used it, and he can’t figure out where anything is.  With the “you get what you pay for” attitude, he goes back to Microsoft Office ’11.

Microsoft recognized that people hate change, and the only way for change to happen is to force it upon people.  They understood that they would be losing several users when they switched to the ribbon, but they also realized that if they were ever going to make a change like this, now would be the time.  Now, Microsoft can afford to lose some users.  In the future, they believe it will help lock in users to their platform.  In a way, it is like investing in the future, only doing so with their user base.  It is a strange technique: using people’s unwillingness to change as a technique to lock people in.  Combined with the Openness piece, it is a great way for Microsoft to make sure its users stay.  It is really a genius plan.

As technology advances, people are beginning to demand openness.  This demand will increase greatly in the future.  The “Openness Movement” is just beginning.  Governments, schools, and individuals who recognize the importance of openness are beginning to gravitate toward Open formats.  Many of them haven’t realized its importance yet, which is why the Openness Movement is still in its infancy, but in the future, this adoption of Open Formats will drastically increase.

Microsoft knows this, and has suddenly become “open”.  Microsoft Office will support ODF (or, at least a proprietary fork of it).  All of the Microsoft products support OOXML, which the ISO says is open.  In addition, all of the Microsoft ads say Windows is “life without walls”.  “Without walls” equals “Openness” for most people.

So, how does the Openness Movement tie into the ribbon?  Once Microsoft has established their ribbon user base, they will also have all of this garbage behind them that they claim is “open”.  Those with the most money can usually convince people whatever they want, so people will believe that Microsoft really is open.  Microsoft has applied for a patent on the ribbon.  They are currently licensing the design to other companies free of cost.  The only prerequisite is that the use of the ribbon is approved by Microsoft.  The goal is obviously to make sure competitors, especially the Free Software people, don’t get ahold of it.

Will this plan work?  Possibly.  I can’t see much interest arising in adding a ribbon bar to OpenOffice or any other Free Software application.  That’s not really the point, though.  Microsoft has a huge number of tricks up its sleeve.  This is just one of those.  There are still several more that nobody has figured out yet.  Microsoft can pay for a huge amount of thinking power to figure out evil plans like this.  Hopefully, none of those plans will affect the freedom of of those users who really want it.

Published in: on September 28, 2008 at 9:45 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. Even for advanced users, using the ribbon takes a while getting used to compared to the menus. The “leaked” screenshots should have shown something else other than applications people dont use. When last did you actually use Wordpad for something productive?

  2. I don’t get all the hate for the ribbon bar. Although I’d been using MS Office and OpenOffice for years with the standard menu, I got to grips with the ribbon in minutes, it’s a very easy interface. I understand that MS isn’t a perfect company, but your arguments sound pathetic.

    And before you state that I am a Windows Zealot, I’ve been using Linux for 5 years, currently on Arch Linux.

  3. I have not used Office 2007 much, so I can’t speak for the ribbon bar, but OpenOffice sure could use something better for their menus. Of hopefully KOffice will be at some point be better than OpenOffice and we’ll all leave that ugly piece of software behind.

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