Dejà vu again
Way, way back in the dim, distant history of computing – well, okay, 20 years ago – Microsoft had just introduced Windows to the world when Apple got all lathered and lawyered up and accused the Redmond giant of stealing the “look and feel” of its Macintosh operating system, more specifically its overlapping windows and the trashcan icon. Apple was on very shaky moral ground (and legal ground too, as it turned out) because the reality was that both companies had first seen a graphical interface that was very similar to both their products during day trips to Rank Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, or PARC, in the early 1980s. Fast-forward to 2007 and Microsoft, proud of its new user interface for Office 2007, has announced that it will, out of the generosity of its enormous corporate heart, allow the world and his dog to use this same glorious UI in their own applications, unless these are intended for Sun, OpenOffice, IBM or Corel – so there! Nyah nyah!
This week, Microsoft made public its intention to “license” the Office UI to other Independent Software Vendors (ISVs). No code or any other technology will be made available, but Microsoft will publish guidelines on how the “Ribbon” should work. We’re not talking here about using Office in your own solutions, or creating add-ins for Office. No, this is all about making third-party applications look like Office 2007, with a Ribbon and a big round Application button in the north-west corner. Microsoft will give you these guidelines in return for you telling it your name and contact details and a little about the application you’re building. You must agree that your software will comply with the guidelines and that, should Microsoft notify you that the guidelines have been changed, or that your application doesn’t comply with them, you’ll change your software to comply within six months. The licence agreement is mercifully short – just two pages – but the design guidelines are long, complex and not even finished yet. The biggest restriction is that you can’t use the new UI to produce any applications, components or web services that compete with Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint or Access.
This should come as no surprise to anyone – Microsoft has spent millions of dollars reinventing the user interface and it doesn’t want its rivals taking a ride on its coat-tails – but if you were waiting for OpenOffice to revamp its own UI to match 2007, you might have a very long wait since Microsoft has just fired the first warning shot in the Office UI war. If Sun, IBM or Novell go anywhere near Microsoft’s shiny new Ribbon, the corporation will slap a writ on them faster than you can say Jack Robinson. Look-and-feel lawsuits have a habit of getting settled eventually but, in the meantime, the lawyers get fat and everyone else wonders when it will all end…
If you did it
If you’re considering updating one of your applications, or creating a new one, that employs a Ribbon user interface like the one in Office 2007, there’s more for you to consider than just the legal niceties of Microsoft’s licensing arrangement. The main issue has to be whether or not a Ribbon UI is right for your application. If you’re thinking of adapting an existing application, you’ll need to apply a huge side-order of “is this application capable of having a Ribbon UI” to the matter. There are only five Microsoft applications out there that sport the Ribbon UI at the moment, but you can be sure there’ll be a raft of wannabes coming along any minute now.