Open-source users revolt over OpenOffice.org ribbon-esque UI

They think it's too similar to Microsoft Office

The open-source faithful are lambasting a proposed overhaul of OpenOffice.org's user interface, with critics saying it would "ape" Microsoft Office's controversial Ribbon layout.

Design of the new UI has been going on for the past nine months, led by OpenOffice.org's main contributor, Sun Microsystems Inc.

According to an update by Sun in July (download presentation), the still-rough overhaul aims to "create a user interface so that OpenOffice.org becomes the users' choice not only out of need but also out of desire."

Judging by the vast majority of the 500-odd comments at Sun's blog last week, the new UI caused many to recoil at its strong association with Microsoft.

"This would be a killer feature for not using OpenOffice.org.... Don't implement this," wrote 'e7'.

"The Office ribbon sucks. Please don't copy it," wrote Robert Hicks.

"This is the definite evidence that either there's no God, or that he hates us," tweeted another user.

Not all commentators shared the negativity. Said "sRC," "I like where this is going.... The Office 07 Ribbon does look functionally challenged at first, but once you get used to it, it is so much nicer to work with than a standard interface."

Similarities abound

OpenOffice.org has long consciously emulated Microsoft Office, from the features and apps it offers to the interface, with drop-down menus and even the same keyboard shortcuts. That's designed to shorten the learning curve for users moving from Office to the free open-source productivity suite.

With Office 2007, Microsoft switched to an XML-based document format and re-invented its user interface to better expose Office's deep well of features.

That has attracted much criticism from users complaining about having to relearn commands they've used for decades to those who say its chunkiness eats up too much horizontal real estate on today's predominantly wide-screen monitors. Others are looking for a chance "to rag on Microsoft," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc.

The backlash is so strong that several companies have released tools enabling Office 2007 users to go back to their beloved drop-down menus.

Microsoft, on the other hand, says the Ribbon is so popular that it is using it for some of Windows 7's built-in apps such as WordPad and Paint, though not for Windows 7's interface itself.

OpenOffice.org eyed 145 mock-ups

OpenOffice.org faced the same dilemma as Microsoft Office in exposing its many features.

In the last six months, OpenOffice.org evaluated more than 17 proposals with 145 design mock-ups, according to John McCreesh, marketing head for OpenOffice.org. Besides the toolbar redesign, OpenOffice.org is thinking of adding live previews, more dragging-and-dropping and a 3D view.

Slamming the redesign simply on the toolbar redesign "is a bit unfair," McCreesh wrote in an e-mail. "Yes, one of the elements of the new design was a new toolbar, which reminded people of the Microsoft Ribbon. Not really surprising, in that using tabs like this is pretty common in UIs, e.g. on web sites."

The redesign still needs to be "formally tested with real users and refined," he wrote. "The team will analyze the feedback from people who have used prototypes; other prototypes may be built.... It will be fascinating to see what emerges."

Haff said he prefers Microsoft's forceful hand when deploying the Ribbon, which he called "a clean sheet replacement for years of accumulated user interface crud." By contrast, OpenOffice.org's ribbon "*looks* to be an addition to what is already there, which, if that's the case, wouldn't solve anything," he wrote.

Michael Meeks, a Novell Inc. engineer working on OpenOffice.org, said he personally likes Office 2007's ribbon UI. His main concern about OpenOffice.org's proposed redesign is that "it is unclear to me who is going to do the coding," he wrote in an e-mail. "Lots of good ideas out there, but not enough typing muscle."

Controversy aside, OpenOffice.org appears more popular than ever. The latest version 3.1 passed the 20 million download mark last week, just three months after its release.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld (US)
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