Barney's Rubble

Who Will Not Wear the Ribbon?

Protecting the Office 2007 UI might just cause a schism in the market.

Remember Twin, or the late Adam Osborne's VP Planner? If so, congratulations on surviving the '80s. If not, you're probably pierced, tattooed and think Windows 98 came from the Stone Age.

These two short-lived spreadsheets mimicked the character mode interface of the original Lotus 1-2-3. While it might seem pretty horrid today, twenty years ago that UI was the cat's pajamas (not sure who owns the copyright to cat's pajamas so I'll take my chances using the term).

Lotus wasn't happy with the 1-2-3 clones and repeatedly sued to protect its look and feel, as well as its macros and even @functions, if I'm not mistaken.

I thought suits like these were deader than an armadillo on Route I-40 in Amarillo. But what seems like the deal of the decade could bring these suits back, and then some.

Microsoft put millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours into building the well-regarded Office 2007 ribbon interface -- and it wants to give the UI to its friends free of charge. This way custom apps, ERP front-ends, productivity and more will all look and feel the same. This shortens the end-user learning curve and shrinks the time it takes corporate developers to design apps. Vendors like Infragistics are ready with a helping hand and tools that make this development a snap.

That's the good news. But blogs and my brain have been filled with the not so good news. For developers, the license is pretty restrictive. You have to follow Microsoft's guidelines -- which means you can't improve the interface! If everyone follows these guidelines, the only group that can define what is state of the art is Microsoft. What happens if you don't follow guidelines? Will you have to throw out all your work when Microsoft barristers come armed with cease and desist orders?

Another issue is more troubling: Competitive products can't use the UI. Two things concern me. Microsoft is competing with more and more vendors, including its third party partners. What happens if Redmond enters your market after you've built your tool?

Meanwhile Redmond is making noise about protecting its patents through lawsuits -- if you get too close to the ribbon and don't have a license, watch out. This could split the market into Microsoft and its friends -- who all work well together -- and the rest, whose software looks like its comes from a different planet.

The real worry is that look and feel lawsuits could come back in spades, making the old Lotus suits look like a landlord dispute on "The People's Court"! Microsoft is already talking about protecting its intellectual property, but does it, or anyone else, own the ribbon interface? You tell me at [email protected].

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.


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