Microsoft Says, "Steal This UI"

Summary: Earlier this year, I said that Office 2007 is the bravest upgrade ever, and the reason was simple: The audacity of introducing a radical new user interface was as surprising as the vast improvements it yielded in productivity. Now, Microsoft has decided to license that user interface to other developers, being surprisingly open in the license terms and potentially improving the user experience for dozens of other applications.

Word 2007 has the wacky ribbon

When I wrote about Office 2007 back in June, the benefits were obvious to me:

They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

Anne Chen and Michael Caton wrote an excellent overview of Office 2007 in eWeek, and I don't know if they or their editor created the headline, but it gets to the gist of the story pretty effectively: "Office 2007 Will Rock Corporations' Worlds".

Though the Office UI Licensing page is a little short on details, as always, Jensen Harris articulates the story perfectly on his blog:

[M]ore than a year ago we started talking about how we could share the design work we've done more broadly in a way that also protects the value of Microsoft's investment in this research and development.

Well, I'm pleased to finally be able to definitively answer the question. Today, we're announcing a licensing program for the 2007 Microsoft Office system user interface which allows virtually anyone to obtain a royalty-free license to use the new Office UI in a software product, including the Ribbon, galleries, the Mini Toolbar, and the rest of the user interface.

Office 2007(Side note to Microsoft's communications team: I understand you feel you need to put out the standard boring press release, but why not at least link to Jensen's blog from there, so that people reading about this won't think it's quite so boring?)

The best part is that the guidelines themselves are written in clear English. You can download a sample (1.4mb PDF) of the 120-page guidelines document. The example guidelines are about an esoteric area, resizing the items on the Ribbon toolbars, but are clear, comprehensible, and promise a lot of potential for the other pages in the document.

This is a fantastic trend, mirroring on the desktop what companies like Yahoo have done with licensing their UI libraries for the web. I'm cautiously optimistic that other developers might even follow the guidelines correctly, promising some productivity gains from the new generation of desktop apps.

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