posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 29th Aug 2011 22:27 UTC
IconAh yes, Windows Explorer. One of the oldest parts of Windows, and yet, it's far from perfect. It's hated less than, say, the Finder (but that's no achievement), but most geeks I know aren't particularly fond of it either. For Windows 8, Microsoft is going to make the biggest change ever to Explorer's interface: it's getting the ribbon treatment.

The ribbon user interface was first introduced in Microsoft Office 2007, and it was certainly one of the most daring changes Microsoft has ever pushed through. Office one of their two pillars, but up until Office 2007, it used the same menu-driven interface. Over the years, this interface had become incredibly cluttered and obtuse, overflowing with features, yet no easy way to find them.

The ribbon was designed to solve this issue. Contrary to popular belief, the goal of the ribbon is not to expose the most commonly-used features; in fact, the goal of the ribbon is to make features easier to find. Office 2003 had about ten billion features, but only about 50 of them (wild guess) were presented in a user-visible way on the various toolbars. The ribbon makes all these ten billion features more discoverable.

Windows Explorer, too, has lots and lots of features most people never use. Hence, Microsoft figured it should implement the ribbon here, too. The end result is a - by now - familiar ribbon interface on top of Explorer. Microsoft's data showed that most users used the context menu to execute Explorer commands, which is quite cumbersome and not particularly discoverable. The ribbon changes this. Other than the ribbon, Microsoft also added lots of other little tidbits that should make Explorer easier to use.

The first consequence of the redesigned Explorer user interface is that contrary to what you'd expect from a ribbon interface, more files can be shown in an Explorer window than in a similarly-sized Explorer window in Windows 7. This was made possible by moving the details pane from the bottom to the side. If you minimise the ribbon - which most of us power users will do - you get even more space. This is a very welcome change for me. This way, it also happens to look a lot cleaner compared to Windows 7's Explorer.

There's also a new quick access toolbar which users can customise, allowing power users to add whatever features they use the most. These features are automatically assigned a keyboard shortcut as well. Speaking of keyboard shortcuts - all Windows 7 Explorer keyboard shortcuts still work, but on top of that, all roughly 200 features in the ribbon now can be accessed via keyboard shortcuts. Very welcome.

The up button is back as well, and they've finally implemented a 'open command prompt in this location' button as well, for both the current user account, as well as one with administrative privileges (finally!).

I'm very ambivalent about all these changes. While I love the ribbon in Office, there's no denying the thing is ugly as sin and just doesn't seem to fit in with anything else in the interface. It's a bit chaotic. For some reason, I don't mind that in Office - a productivity application which I associate with my translation company - but I do mind it in Explorer. Can you imagine having several of these Explorer windows open, all showing the large ribbon? I generally have a few Explorer windows open, so I'm not looking forward to that.

On the other hand, I basically do everything via keyboard shortcuts and context menus anyway, so the prospect of having the ribbon hidden at all times, giving me a very minimalist Explorer user interface, is quite appealing. This all does hinge on whether or not hiding the ribbon can be done Explorer-wide; in other words, let's hope we don't have to hide the ribbon in every new Explorer window we open.

I haven't even talked about the elephant in the room: all fine and dandy, this, but what about file management on the tablet interface which we were told was going to be the default interface? Anyone...?

BUILD can't come soon enough. We need answers!

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