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Windows 8 Secrets: Windows Explorer Ribbon

Part two in a series of co-posts by Windows 8 Secrets co-authors Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott.

When Microsoft introduced the Ribbon user interface as a replacement for the overgrown menus and toolbars in Microsoft Office 2007, many were shocked. The change was audacious for such a mature software product, and it completely blew away years of ingrained shortcuts and skills. But the Ribbon UI was also innovative, and useful, and it provided a way to make previously hidden functionality far more discoverable. It was so successful, in fact, that Microsoft began adding it to other products, including the Windows Live Essentials apps and, in Windows 7, both Paint and WordPad.

In Windows 8, Ribbon usage is accelerating again, and Microsoft's next major OS will include this UI in the most visible of all possible places, Windows Explorer. In early builds of Windows 8, this Ribbon UI is only half-finished and, frankly, of dubious value. In fact, based on the divergent ways in which various related UI elements are repeated around the window frame, we get the idea that the use of the Ribbon in Explorer is, in fact, quite controversial inside the halls of Microsoft's Redmond campus.

In Windows 8, the Windows Explorer shell sports a new Ribbon UI.

(Note: Obviously, all of the Ribbon icons shown here are placeholders. These are early days.)

If Microsoft goes through with this change, the Ribbon will replace the menu and toolbar in today's Explorer windows, and as in Office, it will make many more features visibly discoverable, albeit at the expense of onscreen real estate and, we think, attractiveness.

Various Explorer Ribbon tabs.

As with Office 2010, there are various dynamic Ribbon tabs that can appear as well, including Library Tools (when viewing Libraries), Picture Tools (when one or more image files are selected), and Disk Tools (in Computer view), among others.

Examples of dynamic Ribbons in the Windows 8 shell.

You can also hide the Ribbon, which might explain why a few view style choices are duplicated in the status bar. (Another theory is that these items are there to accommodate other UI types like Aero Lite--formerly called Aero Basic--and Immersive, the tiles-based UI that is based on the Windows Phone "Metro" look and feel.)

A hidden Ribbon (with dynamic Disk Tools tab), and a close-up view of the status-based based view style toggles.

And as with other Ribbon UIs, Explorer's Ribbon now sports a new File menu that, like the one in Office 2010, is pretty expansive.

The Explorer Ribbon File menu.

In the current pre-release builds we've seen, the Ribbon is a serious work in progress and is quite unattractive. It's unclear whether Microsoft intends to move forward with this UI as-is, or whether it will appear only in certain UI types. Based on what we're seeing, however, it does seem that there will at least be a toggle to disable this top-heavy UI. So if you don't like the Ribbon in Windows Explorer, hopefully you'll be able to turn it off.

--Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott

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