Yesterday, Alex Simons from the program management team of Microsoft Windows shed some light on the planned enhancements for Explorer in Windows 8. I enthusiastically welcomed the new Ribbonized Explorer that Microsoft showed off. Minutes later, I was left scratching my head as negative responses begun pouring in from across the web.
BetaNews compared the new Explorer with an overstuffed refrigerator” and dubbed it as “a maze only navigable by your home’s primary cook, while Laurie Voss concluded that Microsoft UI has officially entered the realm of self-parody. The overwhelming consensus is that the Ribbon for Explorer is a bad idea as its overly complicated, and plain unnecessary. Of course, my personal opinion is drastically different. I will try to tackle some of the most common complaints and offer my perspective in this op-ed.
It’s Useless: This argument couldn’t be any further from the truth. The tabbed interface makes it possible to expose a multitude of features in the GUI, without overburdening a novice user. Here are some of the neat little things that will be possible with the new Explorer:
- Compressing multiple files into a single zip file and emailing it with a couple of clicks.
- Single click sharing of files with networked users.
- Contextual searching that is both simple and powerful.
- Enhanced and simplified keyboard navigation.
The Ribbon interface also makes several nifty existing features more accessible and discoverable. Here’s a very brief list of stuff that’s easier to do with Windows 8.
- View hidden files and folders with a single click.
- Launch command prompt in admin mode directly from the Explorer.
- Rollback documents to a previous version with a couple of clicks.
Some of the buttons such as Copy, Paste, and Delete are redundant as most users perform these operations through context-menu or keyboard shortcuts. However, not including them also would have been quite controversial as they do represent the most commonly performed tasks by a user. Hence, even though almost everyone other than novices wouldn’t find these buttons of much use, it makes sense to feature them prominently. Microsoft also probably went overboard with the various selection options. However, on the whole, the Ribbon UI adds plenty of value to the Explorer.
It’s Too Fat: This bit is somewhat true. The Ribbon indeed looks thick and takes up a fair amount of screen real-estate. However, Microsoft has tweaked the Explorer interface to make up for the lost space. Realizing that most modern screens are widescreen, Microsoft removed the header at the top, and shifted the details pane to the right. As a result, in some views you can end up with more space than before. Of course, you can always collapse the Ribbon to increase the viewing area further.
It’s Complicated: With the new interface, Microsoft is exposing numerous functionalities like File and Folder sharing settings, Bit Locker, and Shadow Copy that most Windows users have little idea about. All of these are features that can come in really handy. Unfortunately, until now, all of them were buried within various dialogue boxes. Added functionality often leads to added complexity. However, the Ribbon does a great job at minimizing confusion. Novices can simply stick to the home tab. Once he has gained sufficient confidence, he can venture into other tabs which contain several little known gems. Almost all of the features that Microsoft has chosen to highlight are self-explanatory and easy to get a hang of. Thus, the Ribbon UI might add complexity on the whole, but the neat organization made possible by tabs should ensure that new users don’t get scared. Moreover the biggest strength of the Ribbon interface is that it grows on you.
It’s Ugly: Designing pretty interfaces has never been Microsoft’s strength. The Windows 8 Explorer is no exception. The Ribbon interface is anything but pretty. However, that is mostly because Microsoft is sticking with the old icons, which look quite boring and dated. The mishmash of buttons and dropdown lists of varying sizes in each tab also lends a rather cluttered look. Some rethinking about the visual aspects of the Ribbon would have been nice. However, the concept of Ribbon itself can’t be flawed for the tacky appearence of Windows 8 Explorer.
Another oft repeated arguments comes from Voss, who wrote:
Again, this is Microsoft’s own research, cited in the same post: nobody â€” almost literally 0% of users â€” uses the menu bar, and only 10% of users use the command bar. Nearly everybody is using the context menu or hotkeys. So the solution, obviously, is to make both the menu bar and the command bar bigger and more prominent. Right?
Voss’ point is particularly interesting as it perfectly highlights the difference between Apple’s philosophy and Microsoft’s philosophy. Apple adores minimalism. If it finds that most people aren’t using something it will simply get rid of it, and ask others to fall in line. On the other hand, the traditional Windows approach has been to explore avenues to encourage people to take advantage of features that will ultimately increase their productivity. Simplicity is a lofty goal to have. However, simplicity at the cost of functionality is not always desirable. Unfortunately, the Apple way often requires sacrificing functionality in favor of beauty, elegance, and simplicity.
Windows has a very rabid and dedicated fan base that might not be as vocal as Apple’s, but probably as opinionated. Unlike Apple, Microsoft just can’t come out and ignore the needs of its varying user base. Apple’s fan base is more sensitive to aesthetics, while Microsoft’s fan base often gives more priority to flexibility. Power users who feel that Ribbon is unwanted can always collapse it with a click or a keypress. However, basic Windows users will probably end up benefiting from the new Explorer in the long run.
I am not entirely happy with the appearance of the Ribbon, and I have serious doubts regarding its utility in portable form factors (Tablets). However, Microsoft needs to be lauded for trying to make life easier for the average Windows user who might not have heard about Bit Locker or Shadow Copy, but could benefit from them. Microsoft can’t afford to be Apple. It has built its popularity by following a very different philosophy. The day that Microsoft decides to dumb down its products for aesthetic considerations will be the day it would have dug its grave.