In Windows 7, Microsoft formally adds the second generation Ribbon user interface, called Scenic Ribbon, to its OS codebase. The Scenic Ribbon is an evolution of the original Ribbon control, which debuted in several Office 2007 applications as part of the Office Fluent user interface. As in its Office incarnation, the Scenic Ribbon provides a task-, results-, and intent-based UI alternative to the traditional menus and toolbars that have adorned Windows applications for decades. Windows ships with two Scenic Ribbon applications, Paint and WordPad, and because the Ribbon control is now part of the OS, third party developers are free to use this UI in their own applications as well.

Secret: Windows Live Movie Maker, part of the Windows Live Essentials suite, also utilizes the Scenic Ribbon UI.

History of the Ribbon

The Ribbon arose out of Microsoft's efforts to surface hidden functionality in its Office productivity suite. Over a series of releases earlier this decade, the company discovered two major issues with the traditional menu- and toolbar-based UI it had always used. First, the number of commands supported by each Office application had exploded over the years, stretching the limits of what was possible with this old-fashioned UI. Second, many top feature requests from users were for features that were already in the product; the problem, Microsoft discovered, was that users simply couldn't find the features, as they were buried under layers of menus, toolbars and dialogs.

After experimenting with various UI schemes, Microsoft's designers and developers arrived at an earlier version of the now-familiar Ribbon and were given the go-ahead to implement it in Office 2007. This was a bold step, as Office is arguably the most often-used PC-based productivity tool on earth, with over 500 million active users. But for a world convinced that nothing more could be done with the UI for word processors, spreadsheets, and other productivity solutions, the Ribbon was a shocker. Here, unexpectedly, was a UI that was both obvious and innovative, and completely different from what came before. Office experts hated it--many of their existing skills simply evaporated when the Ribbon debuted--but for the majority of users, the Ribbon was a game changer.

Anatomy of the Ribbon

The original Ribbon user interface works almost exactly like the version that appears now in Windows 7, so it's worth first discussing that UI first and then detailing what's changed with the Scenic Ribbon. The Fluent Ribbon UI consists of a toolbar-like panel, or Ribbon, at the top of the application window, a Microsoft Office Button in the top left application window corner that replaces and enhances the old File menu, and a Quick Access Toolbar that provides a set of useful icons in the application title bar.

Secret: The Quick Access Toolbar is basically a concession to the fact that users often need to perform a task that is unrelated to the job at end. For example, in Microsoft Word, you may be in the middle of inserting endnotes or whatever in the References tab, but need to Undo a mistake. If this command was only available in another tab, it could get monotonous switching back and forth.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon

The Office Fluent UI includes some other features. You can minimize the Ribbon by double-clicking any tab, creating a minimalist interface. To access commands that are hidden when this happens, just click the tab once to temporarily show the hidden Ribbon. Note that you cannot hide the Microsoft Office Button or the Quick Access Toolbar.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
When you minimize the Ribbon, the application UI becomes quite Spartan.

Looking at the Ribbon specifically, the control is broken up into a row of tabs, each of which reveals its own ribbon of commands when clicked. Ribbon commands, represented by icons, buttons, and other controls, are divided into logical and visual groups. These groups can expand and contract intelligently as the application window is resized.

Secret: The Office Fluent UI is optimized for a 1024 x 768 display, according to Microsoft.

Secret: In the Ribbon control, some tabs are permanent but some are contextual and only appear when needed. For example, in Microsoft Word 2007, the Table tab appears only when you add or edit a table.

Finally, the Ribbon can contain a new and unique Gallery user interface control. A Gallery provides a set of (usually) graphical and attractive formatting results, which will be applied to whatever objects are selected by the user in the application editing area. For example, Word 2007 exposes Styles as a Gallery. These galleries provide live previews, so as you mouse over the various choices they provide, the selected object temporarily changes so you can see the effect it will have.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
A Ribbon Style Gallery with live preview.

In the Office Fluent UI, the prominent and circular Microsoft Office Button replaces the old File menu and provides additional functionality, including the ability to access functionality that would traditionally have been provided by an Options dialog. The right side of this application menu provides a list of most recently used (MRU) documents.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
The application menu.

Secret: The old ALT + F keyboard shorcut still opens the application menu.

What's changed in the Scenic Ribbon

With the inclusion of a next-generation Ribbon version in Windows 7, Microsoft has made some changes to this control to make it universally appealing to users and developers. Office-specific touches like the Microsoft Office Button are gone, for example, while other features have simply been generalized to make them more universally usable.

So instead of a Microsoft Office Button, Scenic Ribbon applications now feature an Application button (or "pearl") that sits directly in the top left corner of the actual Ribbon instead of being somewhat separate as the Microsoft Office Button was in Office 2007. The Application Button is rectangular rather than round, and less conspicuous. It's also colored to match the application color scheme, so all Windows 7 applications that utilize this control have a blue Application Button.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
The Scenic ribbon, Application Button, and application menu in Windows 7 Paint.

Secret: Interestingly, the next version of Microsoft's productivity suite, Office 2010, utilizes an updated version of the Scenic Ribbon. In Office 2010, each application in the suite features a standard Application Button instead of the Office 2007-style (round) Microsoft Office Button. Each application in Office 2010 will also feature a unique color scheme and eschew the File Menu for a new BackStage view that occupies the entire application window.

In the Scenic Ribbon, the Application Button works like its predecessor. A simple pop-up menu appears when the button is clicked, revealing standard options like New, Open, Save, Save As, Print, Send in E-mail, About, and Exit. But applications can also provide unique options to this list. Paint, for example, provides Acquire from scanner or camera, Set as desktop background, and Properties commands here. Curiously, neither Paint nor WordPad provides an Options choice in this menu, though Windows Live Movie Maker does.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon

As with Office 2007, the Scenic Ribbon applications in Windows 7 appear to be optimized for a 1024 x 768, but none of them present enough commands to expand well beyond that. The UI "works" at resolutions as low as 640 x 480 but both Paint and WordPad offer fairly constrained interfaces by that point.

Like its predecessor, the Scenic Ribbon offers galleries, which are now called Style Galleries. And as with its predecessor, Scenic Ribbon Style Galleries can apply styles on the fly in a preview so you can see what change will occur before applying it. However, the implementation of this functionality is spotty across the built-in Windows 7 applications.

Via native interface scaling in Windows 7, the Scenic Ribbon UI is quite usable even on touch-based computers. And of course multi-touch functionality makes an application like Paint particularly fun to use.

Paint, WordPad and Windows Live Movie Maker

The Windows 7 version of Paint and WordPad both offer just two Ribbon tabs, Home and View. These applications are, in many ways, simple examples of what's possible and thus are designed to inspire developers. But these applications both offer important new functionality that make them major upgrades over previous versions of the applications. (Most of these new features aren't necessarily Ribbon-related, however.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
Available ribbons in Paint.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
Available ribbons in WordPad.

Windows Live Movie Maker, meanwhile, is still in Beta at the time of this writing and is in the middle of a major overhaul with the goal of making the application a simple and effective tool for editing home video and posting it online, where it can be shared with others. In its current state, Windows Live Movie Maker is barely usable and still utilizes a dated version of the Scenic Ribbon. However, it does offer three Ribbon tabs: Home, Visual Effects, and Edit, and utilizes a number of very graphical Style Galleries.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Scenic Ribbon
Available ribbons in Windows Live Movie Maker Beta.

Final thoughts

By formally making the Scenic Ribbon part of Windows 7 as well as the Windows APIs for developers, Microsoft hopes to see a new generation of Windows applications appear, applications that eschew traditional menus and toolbars. This is part of the company's ongoing UI evolution, which also includes the minimizing of menus even in those applications that do feature toolbars, extensive use of Aero glass effects, and a move to managed programming interfaces based on .NET. Whether this work will bear any fruit remains to be seen, but users have proven to be surprisingly adaptable to a variety of UI types. My expectation is that the Ribbon will simply be one of many application UI choices going forward.