In computer interface design, a ribbon is a graphical control element in the form of a set of toolbars placed on several tabs. The typical structure of a ribbon includes large, tabbed toolbars, filled with graphical buttons and other graphical control elements, grouped by functionality. Such ribbons use tabs to expose different sets of controls, eliminating the need for numerous parallel toolbars. Contextual tabs are tabs that appear only when the user needs them. For instance, in a word processor, an image-related tab may appear when the user selects an image in a document, allowing the user to interact with that image.
The usage of the term "ribbon" dates back to the 1980s and was originally used as a synonym for plain toolbar. However, in 2007, Microsoft used the term to refer to its own implementation of tabbed toolbars encompassing a conglomerate of controls for Microsoft Office 2007, which Microsoft calls "The Fluent UI". Although Microsoft popularized the term with a new meaning, similar tabbed layouts of controls had existed in previous software from other vendors, including 3D Studio Max R3 and later, Adobe Dreamweaver, Borland Delphi, HotDog and Macromedia HomeSite.
Use of a ribbon interface dates from the early 1990s in productivity software such as Microsoft Word and WordStar as an alternative term for toolbar: It was defined as a portion of a graphical user interface consisting of a horizontal row of graphical control elements (e.g., including buttons of various sizes and drop-down lists containing icons), typically user-configurable.
A toolbar interface, called the "ribbon", has been a feature of Microsoft Word from the early DOS-based Word 5.5 (ca. 1990) and the first Windows-based versions (activated by the "View | Ribbon" menu option), for which early advertising referred to the use of "the Ribbon to replace an endless string of commands to let you format characters by eye instead of memory".
With the release of Microsoft Office 2007 came the "Fluent User Interface" or "Fluent UI", which replaced menus and customizable toolbars with a single "Office menu", a miniature toolbar known as "quick-access toolbar" and what came to be known as the ribbon: multiple tabs, each holding a toolbar bearing buttons and occasionally other controls. Toolbar controls have assorted sizes and are classified in visually distinguishable groups. The new design was intended to alleviate the problem of users not finding or knowing of the existence of available features in the Office suite. The name "ribbon" was later purported to have originated from an early design idea by which commands were placed on a long pane that could be rolled like a medieval scroll; the name was retained after the scrolling mechanism was replaced by tabs.
Microsoft applications implementing ribbons each have a different set of tabs which house user controls for that application. Within each tab, various related controls may be grouped together. Double-clicking the active tab or clicking the "Minimize" button hides the command panel, leaving only the tabs visible. Repeating this action reveals the pane. The ribbon consolidates the functionality previously found in menus, toolbars and occasionally task panes into one area.
In Microsoft Office 2007, only Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint implemented ribbons. With the release of Microsoft Office 2010, however, ribbons were implemented in the rest of the Microsoft Office applications. Microsoft Office 2010 added additional end-user customization support to its user interface.
Microsoft gradually implemented ribbons in other software. The fourth wave of Windows Live Essentials applications, including Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and Writer, featured a ribbon. Since Windows 7, Paint and WordPad feature ribbons. On Windows 8, File Explorer followed suit. Ribbons also appeared in SQL Server Report Builder, Dynamics CRM 2011, Microsoft WebMatrix, Microsoft Mathematics v4.0, Microsoft EMET 4.0 and Microsoft Message Analyzer. Internet Explorer, Notepad and Visual Studio, however, do not have a ribbon.
The development history of the Ribbon, presented by Jensen Harris in 2008, can be seen here.
Since the introduction of ribbons in Microsoft Office 2007, there has been an increase in the use of this type of interface in applications created by other developers, especially those creating tools for Microsoft-related products. Microsoft facilitated the adoption with the releases of Windows 8, Windows 7 and the Windows Vista platform update, which included built-in ribbon framework APIs, introduced to allow developers to integrate a ribbon toolbar into their applications. The Nielsen Norman Group published some examples in a 2008 GUI showcase report.
In 2006, a browser extension brought a ribbon bar to Mozilla Firefox.
In June 2008, Red Flag Software released RedOffice 4.0 beta, a Chinese fork of OpenOffice.org including a new user interface that used many ribbon ideas in its design. In November 2008 Sun Microsystems started the project Renaissance to improve the user interface of OpenOffice.org. So far the prototypes of the project are frequently seen as similar to ribbons, but this has resulted in some criticism from users.
In July 2011, Avid Tech added a ribbon interface under Microsoft license to Version 7.0 of their Sibelius (scorewriter) music notation application, replacing the menu navigation system of previous versions. This met with considerable user resistance, however the ribbon interface has remained integral to the current GUI.
In September 2012, MathWorks introduced a ribbon interface (known as "Toolstrip") in MATLAB R2012b.
Prior to Microsoft's introduction of ribbons in Office 2007, the user interface for its Office suites had barely changed since the introduction of Office 97 on November 19, 1996. (Office 2000 and Office 2003 released relatively minor upgrades compared to Office 97, which itself was considered to be something of a milestone compared to Office 95.)
Because of this, users became accustomed to this style of interface, which was common in many productivity products at the time. When Microsoft implemented ribbons, it was met with mixed reactions. Jeff Atwood thought the new system made menus obsolete as a cornerstone of the WIMP interface when it was first revealed in 2005. Redmondmag.com reported that power users feel the ribbons take "too much time and patience to learn." Richard Ericson from Computerworld noted that experienced users might find difficulties adapting to the new interface, and that some tasks take more key-presses or clicks to activate. Though the ribbon can be hidden by double-clicking on the open tab, PC World wrote that the ribbons crowds the Office work area, especially for notebook users; the customization options available in the original version didn't allow users to rearrange or remove the predefined commands, although it could be minimized. Others have called its large icons distracting. An online survey conducted by ExcelUser reports that a majority of respondents had a negative opinion of the change, with advanced users being "somewhat more negative" than intermediate users; the self-estimated reduction in productivity was an average of about 20%, and "about 35%" for people with a negative opinion.
Other users claim that once the new interface is learned, the average user can create "professional-looking documents faster". One study reported fairly good acceptance by users except highly experienced users and users of word processing applications with a classical WIMP interface, but was less convinced in terms of efficiency and organisation.
The decision to abolish menus has been likened to the Coca-Cola company's infamous New Coke campaign in its abandonment of the existing user base. Microsoft Office 2011 for the Macintosh, while employing the ribbon, also retains the menu system in the Mac menu bar.
Proponents of free software, such as KDE developer Jarosław Staniek, have expressed beliefs that patents regarding ribbons cannot be acquired due to the ubiquity of prior art. Staniek notes that the ribbon concept has historically appeared extensively as "tabbed toolbars" in applications such as Sausage Software's HotDog, Macromedia HomeSite, Dreamweaver and Borland Delphi. Lotus developed early ribbon UIs for its product eSuite. Screen shots are still available in an IBM redbook about eSuite (page 109ff).
On February 13, 2018, a jury from the Northern District of California found that Corel Corporation had infringed on several Microsoft's Ribbon Design Patents and Ribbon Utility Patents regarding the Fluent UI.
The [Wordstar] package includes a straightforward intuitive interface featuring an icon ribbon.
Ribbon [...] a horizontal row of control icons that can often be redefined to suit the user's requirements.
A liberal collection of icons located on the Ribbon replaces an endless string of commands [...]
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[...] a ribbon that contains labeled icons (64×64 bit maps) representing tasks and tools that has been instantiated by the user. Each tasktool is represented by a different icon.
We've even added a handy new feature, called the ribbon.
Select View Ribbon to activate the Ribbon.
For one thing, Word 2007 uses the entirely new ribbon interface. Power users say it takes too much time and patience to learn. [...] 'People will get used to the new interface, but at major efforts in time, training and cost,' says Mike McCullough, director of systems at Cooling Systems Technologies (CST) Inc. [...] When it came time to move her from 2003 to 2007, he quickly ran into problems. 'I might as well of hit her over the head with a bat,' he says. 'I could see anger and frustration.' [...] Other readers feel it's worth taking the time to learn the new interface.
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