Shoot the foot

Occasionally, someone does something so inexplicably daft that it’s hard not to let your jaw drop so far that it hits the carpet and bounces twice. For an example, let’s take a look at the new Office 2007 product. The first thing that will jump out to massage your eyeballs is its completely new design for menus: in fact, menus have basically gone away altogether and there are now these “Ribbon” designs that change their behaviour depending on what you’re doing, based around a core set of common tasks such as creating a document, formatting it, revising it, graphing and so forth. Without doubt, a lot of design hours have been devoted to this menuing system, especially in the area of defining exactly how it should collapse down whenever you reduce the main window size. After all, there’s no sense in having large graphical buttons cluttering up a smaller window, so a change of size and content is obviously useful there.

Shoot the foot

Several developers outside of Microsoft have obviously said: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have such functionality in our own applications that we write?” Meanwhile, the development tool vendors have been quick to develop easy-to-use drop-in tools that mimic the behaviour of the Office Ribbon design, but generate all the heavy code for you. There’s nothing new there – tool vendors have been offering such button and menu builders for years, going back to the earliest days of Visual Basic with its VBX add-in control system. Today’s Visual Studio is awash with such builders, helpers, snap-in doodads and other useful gizmos. So, it was obviously with a great deal of interest that I read the press release from Microsoft saying it was licensing its Ribbon technology out to the developer community. I went to the right page at http://msdn.microsoft.com to look at the details, and immediately it was obvious that something wasn’t quite right – Microsoft hadn’t really released anything concrete, it had merely announced a licence for its “intellectual property” in the design and implementation of the code.

Now one reason for this is that Microsoft releases a lot of stuff nowadays under such an “it’s free but you must accept that it’s still our IP” licence, which I can perfectly understand. A good example of this kind of permission is the whole definition of the XML licensing schema for the Office document file format – just place the words “XML file format copyright Microsoft” (or some such equivalent phrase) into your application and you can use the Microsoft XML schemas, definitions and so forth to your heart’s content.

But this case was different. First, it says you can’t use the Ribbon design for any application that competes with the main tools in Office, so you can’t design an Excel-alike or Word-alike. Unfortunately, it doesn’t clearly define the criteria by which you can tell whether a product is an Office competitor or not. I can imagine how a small data grid with some numerical capabilities would easily fulfil the needs of many people, especially in a vertical market context, but there’s no means of telling whether that would put you in violation of the non-compete with Excel or not. I guess that’s something Microsoft would arbitrarily decide upon at some unknown point in the future. However, it does fulfil Microsoft’s immediate need, which is to prevent OpenOffice and other such products from adopting the Ribbon look and feel for themselves.

But that’s not the half of the problem. Look at what you get when you agree to this online licence – a download of a 150-page document that describes, in the most excruciating detail, how the Ribbon should look, operate, collapse, inflate and so forth in an Office application (which, of course, you can’t build because it would be in competition). Some items are marked as being mandatory, while others are optional, and if your app fails on a mandatory point then you don’t have much time in which to fix it before Microsoft will deem you to be in violation of the licence and will doubtless unleash the Lawyers From Redmond on you. And yes, it gets even better – this document is considered Microsoft Confidential. Unbelievable though it might seem, a document that simply lays out all the visible behaviour of the Ribbon in Office – a product that will ship tens of millions of copies – is somehow a confidential matter.

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