Metro & Ribbon–The real difference and how they can blend

What’s the difference?

In recent years, Microsoft has been pushing two very different types of solutions for user interfacing: the Ribbon and Metro. To be more accurate, ‘Metro’ is not really a GUI-type per se; it’s actually what is considered to be a design language, meaning it refers to how the overall style and how it looks and feels consistently through an application . However, the ‘Ribbon’ is an actual graphical user interface (GUI), meaning it refers to a specific way the design is laid out. So these two things are not actually competing in anyway; you can have one or the other, or even both.

As an example, think of a cereal box. The specific placement of elements such as information (like ingredients, nutritional info., name, company info.), graphics, and other stuff in the way they are is similar to a graphical user interface. The types of colors, text, graphic style of these elements are very much the theme, or design language of the box.

Overview of Metro

This design language first appeared in Windows XP Media Center Edition, showing the basic works of Metro where simple navigation through text and content made a very nice TV watching experience. Since then, it has started to find it’s way into other Microsoft products like the Zune, Zune desktop software, Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft’s main website (fairly recently), and now Windows Phone 7. Supposedly, Windows 8, the version after Windows 7, will take some elements of Metro.

Metro has evolved into a brilliant design language that really revolves around four things: modern, clean, content, and typography.

It’s modern in that it takes a much new approach to design than most people have not seen so comprehensively. It’s unique and offers the simplicity that we associate with contemporary ideas.

It’s clean in that menus and content blend in to the background, and bring content to the the foreground. It doesn’t go over the top with gimmicky visual effects. Stuff like space-wasting ‘wet floor effects’, glossy 3D icons, attempts to emulate the look of real-life objects (a Notes app looking exactly like a real notepad) and all that other stuff are generally not in Metro. Icons generally have a universal feel where virtually anyone who has looked at a map legend, symbols on road signs, or at metro transit stations (hence the name…) might be able to recognize easily. The only real ‘effects’ come in through transitional movement, like getting from one screen to another, and it’s done in the most fluid, swiftest motion that feels so natural and not a time-waster.

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It puts a major focus on bringing content to the foreground, instead of the commands and navigation around it. Album art, photos, video thumbnails, e-mail message, contacts, etc. seem to pop out front and center thanks to the understated typography and endless background.

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Typography is also another key bit, where the font (officially Segoe WP) seems very clear, crisp and to-the-point. The big words make it very easy to read and quick to digest as you move through the interface. Typography also moves around as necessary to give you a visual indicator of where you are on the screen, as the interface goes off the screen (literally outside the box) to better disperse everything, rather than cram it into one spot.

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Overview of the Ribbon

The Ribbon (officially called ‘Fluent’ by Microsoft) really first appeared in Office 2007. Since then, we’ve seen it more integrated in built-in Windows 7 applications (like Paint and Wordpad) and Windows Live Essentials applications (Wave 4: Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Writer, etc.).

However, some will argue that ‘the ribbon’ is not really a Microsoft original and has appeared in other desktop applications in the form of tabbed ribbons. Basically all the tabs are really just headers that could have been found in files menus.

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This is very true, but in my opinion, Microsoft pretty much redid the ribbon the right way, like how Apple rethought a smartphone could look when they launched their iPhone. It’s Microsoft’s implementation where they used a nicer font, more pleasant gradients, nicer icons, and other stuff that made the ribbon feel something modern rather than something from the 1990s.

Anyhow, the ribbon isn’t great for everything. It’s wonderful for applications heavy with lots of commands and controls.Instead of hunting through endless drop-down menus and squinting at toolbar icons, the Ribbon helps group things in a more visually-pleasing hierarchy where each tab encases similar items or functionality, then separated into clusters/groups for more specification, and then you finally get to the commands. Essentially, from biggest to smallest hierarchy: tabs > clusters > commands. It’s a getting-stuff-done type of interface.

There’s still a file button, though it’s masked as the application’s icon, and there is a Quick Access Toolbar for frequent commands. There may be also hidden tabs, called ‘contextual’ tabs that only appear when you activate the need for those functions (like clicking on a picture brings up a pictures tool tab). It goes away once you navigate away from it.

Now that we’ve examined the two, can you really argue one is better than the other, given they’re not mutually exclusive? They may be like apples to oranges (design language v. GUI) but they have appeared to be competing approaches Microsoft has for user interaction with software. In the end, they somewhat exist for different purposes. Metro is designed for simplicity in mind where there are few commands that need organizing, while the Ribbon is more for heavy-duty command-filled uses. However, I think it’s time Microsoft changes that.

Can they blend together?

As I pointed out in the very beginning, despite their unique visual appearances and layout in many applications, they’re not exactly polar opposites as many would like to think. Metro is basically a distinct visual style, while the Ribbon is basically how it’s all arranged. So it’s not like it’s impossible for those two to combine, is it? How about a Ribbon with a Metro look to it?

The ribbon in Office 2010 could probably match a Metro look with a few modifications:

metro ribbon 2

Basically all Microsoft would need to do to convert the 2010 style Ribbon to a more Metro look would be:

  • Have almost no visual gradients on both the background of the ribbon, as well as within icons
  • Use the Segoe WP font in all text on the commands.
  • Convert each tab into its own header like on the Zune desktop software (see pic above)
  • Make borders less sharp, but sharp enough to distinguish between groups under headers
  • Make most icons grayscale and create primary/secondary accent colors for the icons within the program. Primary and secondary colors can be dropped on icons so that it will offer some helpful contrast that makes it go together. Maybe the primary/secondary colors will blend with the app by default (like green is Excel, blue is Word, etc.) but maybe users can mess with it.

Perhaps Microsoft is working on fusing the Metro design language gradually into the GUI of the next versions of Windows. It won’t be a rapid change of course, because generally people don’t like big changes (case in point: Vista), so it should be a pretty slow evolutionary change in each version of Windows.

It’s not as unlikely as it sounds. Microsoft had released clips of their ‘vision’ of the future (2019 it seems) of how they expect for technology to work, and virtually every bit of software in the video follows the Metro design language. Could this be an indication of where they expect Windows to go? Pause exactly at 0:38 in the video below to see what Windows on a desktop level might be like with Metro.

Pause at 0:38 to see what Windows OS based on Metro could look like.

If you do want to see a higher resolution video, this link is straight from Microsoft and will directly open up Windows Media Player to view [WMV]

In a similar video, the Senior Vice President of Microsoft’s Online Audience Business, Yusuf Medhi, present the ‘next-gen Office wall’ at the Interactive Advertising Bureau MIXX 2009 conference. We had a sneak peak of this in the 2019 Vision videos, but this is the real deal. [istartedsomething.com]

Further evidence of a possible merge of Windows and Metro

 

Or maybe Microsoft might actually develop a full-scale Metro theme for Windows 7/8 to go in conjunction with the next generation of Windows tablets that Microsoft seems intent on competing with the likes of iPad and Android-based tablets with.

So what do you think? Does the Ribbon or Metro interest you, and do you think either will have a larger presence in future Windows OS’s?

http://www.proprofs.com/polls/widget/?title=metro-or-ribbon&theme=grey&width=300

Useful links:

Metro Design booklet – The entire Metro design booklet by a team from Microsoft nicely captured page by page thanks to Long Zheng.

Office User Interface Blog – Many detailed posts by Jensen Harris who goes over the design decisions when they started the Ribbon in Office 2007

Wikipedia article of Ribbon – Good overview

Wikipedia article of Metro – Good rundown

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The future of digital music distribution and the Microsoft factor

In this post, I’d like to explore what I see in the near-future (30-50 years) regarding digital music distribution, and taking into account where I see Microsoft falling into this.

The big four record companies (Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, EMI, and Warner Music Group) control about 75% of the market. They know that people, given the knowledge, can easily pirate music if they want to. Unless they can get tougher laws regarding websites or users, or force ISPs to report on piracy to them, it doesn’t look like piracy will change much. Of course, within reason, people will pay for music if they think it’s worth paying for. Here are the best models (with enhancements) that I think will benefit both the record labels and consumers for the near future:

  • Free streaming subscription with ads – Everyone loves the idea of free, even with constraints. Users to a music service can stream music via the web for free, and as long as you’re connected, you’re good. That’s about it. Access to a library where you search and hope you find it. However, you probably won’t have access to the full library (maybe not the latest songs for a month or two, premiums, or classics), no free downloads, there will be audio ads every so often you can’t disable, and probably limits on the quantity of playlists and content inside them, and other stuff. (best examples: Pandora Radio, Slacker).
  • Paid subscriptionUnlimited library access for how long the subscription lasts. Ability to download for offline use with special DRM that takes expiration into account. Algorithm-created playlists or recommendations based on you or a specific piece on the fly. Ability to keep at least a certain amount of tracks DRM-free, high bit-rate, any audio format after the subscription ends. No downsides, except when the subscription expires, you lose access to the complete store library. Reasonable monthly price range should range from $5-$15, and less per month if on a longer contract. Possibility of music extras like those mentioned in ‘a la carte’ bullet. (Best examples: Zune Marketplace, Rhapsody, Napster, Spotify, MOG, Rdio)
  • A la carteHigh quality bit-rate, DRM-free, any audio format of any track or album you’d like to keep. Complimentary extras like lyrics, music videos, liner notes, performance videos, exclusive clips, and more are included for free. Pricing would ideally be 99 cents a song, though no more than $2 if wanting to charge extra for high quality downloads or very recent music. The only downside is cost if you can’t afford it, which does rack up if you’re a big music listener. Producing music isn’t free though, so I don’t really consider it a downside. (best examples: iTunes Store, Zune Marketplace)
  • FreemiumFree DRM-free tracks to download. Idea behind this is that most money for record labels is made on merchandising, concert events, and other stuff, while music purchases are not usually as much. So why not make free, or at least some of it, and available to all so everyone can share your work and give you publicity? Downside of course is likely limited availability. (Free Music Archive, Clearbits, MadeLoud)

Paid subscriptions fit with the Open Music Model that MIT tried to push. However, due to the record companies, royalties and whatnot, I don’t think there are any large size systems that fit the open file format and open file sharing benchmarks. It’s also worth mentioning that some services offer both a basic free streaming with ads model, and a paid subscription model.

AM and FM radio stations will continue to be popular. Though you don’t get the same person fine-tuning, and there are still ads, people still love it. They can get live traffic feeds on the go, get notified of anything major around the area, and of course the usual giveaways and shout outs. Satellite radio will also still be popular with it’s high sound quality, professionally-produced content, and access anywhere are the key differentiators.

Do retail stores still figure into the equation? In my opinion, yes. Why? Even as access to tech is trickling down, not everyone will have personal access to a computer or more likely, high speed internet. Also, people generally love the retail experience where you can peruse through stuff physically. So I think some digital kiosks selling media to download straight to a device or update a subscription can still be cool. I posted a bit more down below where I’d like to see Microsoft figure into this.

So how would I like to see Microsoft going about digital music in the near future? Here’s what I think:

  • Adopt all the models – If Microsoft could manage to have a slice of every vertical, they could really grow a large user base. They’re already firmly implanted in the ‘a la carte’ and paid subscription models, but I’d like to see if they could also do free ad streaming and freemium as well.
  • Strengthen Zune brand mindshare – The tech world knows Zune offers great stuff, yet the masses haven’t followed. Microsoft needs to increase mindshare by getting music artists to try it out and promote their product, sponsor concerts and other big music events, more giveaways so more people can see it on the streets, etc.
  • Fix up Zune Social – Zune Social is neat, but they really need to strengthen this concept. I’d like to see music videos count as music plays, closer integration with Windows Live identity, Last.fm integration, ability to make groups/forums, and more. Maybe an optional Facebook integration with users favorites artists, songs, etc.? Also more detail bios, pictures, websites, twitter, etc. on artists pages.
  • Expand internationally faster – Apple has led the way in accessing global markets and signing deals with many record companies. Microsoft needs to work on this. Developing markets are also a prime target, because usually the first ones there tend to stay in that position. I’m sure users in Africa, Asia, and Latin America wouldn’t mind a legit music/media store that does stuff right.
  • Get better label agreements – Zune pretty much has all the major stuff, but often depending on special artists, not everything is available on Zune Pass. Some won’t allow you to use a song credit to keep their song, and others won’t even let you stream the full song. It’s mostly rare, but still disconcerting. Internationally, only 4 other markets have a Zune Pass, and though they cost just about the same, they don’t get the free 10 songs at the end of the subscription. Obviously, better label deals would be appreciated.

Possible interesting ideas Microsoft could also try, not necessarily major:

  • Maybe allow Zune experience on non-MS platforms? – Zune is a very competitive service, and many would like it on other platforms. However, this could hurt Microsoft’s competitive edge in promoting their own products. With a Zune Pass, you can access music on Zune.net through a web browser, but it’s not the same as a native app. So it’ll be interesting whether or not MS will go this route.
  • Selling media in a physical store? – As I mentioned above, not everyone will always have a computer or high-speed internet, and others like a retail experience, so selling digital in a physical store format isn’t too crazy. I think it’d be neat if Microsoft could sell Surface 2.0 tables to independent music stores or even big retail stores (Best Buy, Target, etc.) to sell Zune Marketplace media directly to devices or USB sticks, and renew Zune Pass subscriptions on. Retailers of course get a cut on the items sold, but it might be worth it for all parties.

Overall, I hope to see record labels truly embracing the digital world, rather than going against it. I don’t really have to mention it, but the RIAA hasn’t generally had such a good history to it as far as most people would care. As a Microsoft fan, I think Microsoft could truly deliver a wonderful music experience if they keep working on it.

It’ll be interesting to see if music distribution will be any more different than these enhanced tried-and-true models, and if piracy will keep going unfettered.

The myths/lies surrounding the PC v. Mac debates

I think it’s about time I addressed the myths regarding the PC v. Mac debates. I’m starting to get tired of the BS that lots of people are spreading on both sides so I’m going to try to list every myth I can remember and show how it’s not really true. I think people ought to know the truth instead of lies based on marketing or fanboys.

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For argument’s sake, we’ll assume that the a PC is a computer running Windows and a Mac is one running OS X. (Technically, both are considered a personal computer)

Here we go in no particular order:

1. PCs get viruses. Macs don’t.

False. While it is true that PCs can get viruses, so can Macs. It’s just that virus writers are much less likely to target OS X users, because they make up such a small minority of users. However, there was one lately that hit a lot of users surprisingly which goes to show that it is possible for Macs to get viruses. It’s not good to have security through obscurity.

2. There are no real games for the Mac. Any true gamer will get a PC.

That’s now been false for awhile. Many computer game companies have started releasing OS X versions of their popular games, and are working to probably get all their games to. Valve, a very popular game distributor and game maker, has also had support for Macs for about a year now. You can also run Windows on a Mac, and get games from that as well. Though in the end, it is probably true that a real gamer would probably have his own custom computer rig or fancy Alienware computer to play hard core games, but it’s unlikely that most people wondering about a PC v. Mac are serious gamers.

3. Macs are the best for media/art stuff. The pros use it.

Wrong. The quality of art is a matter of the artist, not the tools. You can do well on both platforms. There are a lot more media/arts related tools available to Mac users more than PCs, but quantity doesn’t always equal quality. I will say that Apple’s higher end multimedia programs, like Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro are very top-of-the-line, but they’re not the only solution. Adobe Creative Suite is a very popular solution for both Mac and PC owners alike, and are also professional quality tools.

Alongside, another misconception is that everyone in the media industry uses Macs to do their work. There are a lot of Macs, but it’s not really a supermajority. Regular PCs are used for a lot of the base and even professional bits. Sony Entertainment, for example, loves to use its own Sony Vegas Pro to create their films, and obviously that hasn’t stopped them from making blockbusters. Dreamworks and other animation companies use PCs for advanced 3D modeling. Usually it’s many designers’ preference to work on a Mac, but only because it has been so ingrained within the industry.

4. If you want a high-quality computer guaranteed to last, Macs are the only choice.

Wrong. The perception that most PCs are just the standard cheap Dell or HP computer has already been shown to be very deceiving. Look no farther than Lenovo, Asus, Sony VAIO, and the select lines of HP and Dell as a hint to where you can also get a very good PC, but still affordable. Design-wise, they’re just as good if not better (see Dell Adamo or Samsung Series 9 or Vaio Z) and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Macs can also get problems just as well. Do a Google or Bing for “mac issues” or “mac problems” or anything like that and you’ll see many news and forums about them.

5. Macs are so awesome because they can run both Windows and OS X.

It’s not technically wrong, but it is very deceptive. Only reason why Macs have the legitimate ability to do so is because Apple owns and controls both Macs and OS X. If Apple would allow others to pay and install OS X on whatever machines they would want to, Apple would no longer have a very unique reason for you to buy a Mac. This is why I don’t consider this to be a true feature, given the obviousness.

Also, if you want a legit Windows OS, you’ll have to cough up some extra $100s, as it’s not included. Also, there’s a project called Hackintosh where you can put OS X on a PC, though not legitimately.

6. Macs are so good, that you can sell it used or refurbished for very close to the original price.

True, but that’s also how it usually is with other high-end computers. If it’s a great computer, you will/should be able to sell it for near the original price unless there’s obvious wear and tear. I’ve yet to seen some study or research showing that Macs are the only brand that can achieve this.

7. A lot of famous people use Macs, even on TV and in movies, so it must be good.

A lot of famous people have the money to splurge on trendy things. Macs happen to be very trendy. Most famous people are probably not tech smart, thus not aware there are other great computers out there, thanks to Apple’s pervasive marketing that it’s brand is the best. So of course most will appear to have a Mac. Just so you know, having a Mac won’t make you cool or famous. At least it shouldn’t.

Very often, products you see in movies and TV are just product placement. There’s been some chatter that it’s also ‘often’ because the producer/director chose to do so because they like Apple or because it’s a computer they had on hand. If you see an obvious glowing Apple logo, it’s going to be obvious Apple paid for it to be there. Rarely do the studios think it’s a wise idea to give free marketing for a company, or be liable to a company if they didn’t want their products associated with the studio’s production. Otherwise, there might be a Mac, but they’ll disguise it by cover the logo/branding, though you still might be able to tell.

8. Macs are very expensive and overpriced.

It is overpriced, but not necessarily expensive. It’s overpriced in the sense that given a PC and a Mac having near same parts, you’ll still pay more for the Mac because Apple also sells its ‘brand’, thus the higher mark up. It’s ridiculous but true. It is overpriced.

Expensive? Depends. If brand new, yes. Unless you’re a college student, where you can a slight discount and a ‘free’ iPod Touch (smallest format of course). Or you can get a refurbished Mac that costs less but is just as good. With any higher-end purchase, you also need to note the general durability and quality build will make it last longer. They can be comparatively priced to other PCs with a similar focus on high-end parts and a pretty design.

9. PCs come with so many problems, it’s harder to use while Macs aren’t.

Wrong. Maybe the likelihood of a PC having problems and usability issues is higher, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. These days, PCs are shipping with Windows 7, well lauded for it’s stability and usability. It’s not perfect, but neither is OS X. So usability-wise, I’d have to say that’s utterly false, as long as you can read and have the patience to learn a computer the right way.

Problems? Well most problems tend to be induced by either the company who made the computer, or the user him/herself. Companies want to justify they can make PCs cheaper by tacking on some trialware or junkware to ‘offer’ you some good deals or neat tools thanks to the company that paid to put it on there. Usually it’s a trial or just not good, though you can always start by doing a clean install which isn’t too hard if you do it sooner so you don’t have to deal with data. Otherwise, faulty parts on cheap PCs have been an obvious problem.

Users themselves may also be a part of the reason why there may be problems. Installing shareware programs and downloading all kinds of stuff, especially anything ‘free’ might make you at greater risk for having malware or harming your computer. Please avoid.

10. Microsoft is a copycat, Apple is an innovator. Thus you should buy a Mac.

That is one of the worst justifications for a purchase. Company A has a reputation for this, so I should disregard the actual product and go with Company B.  That’s silly and wasting money if you’re buying a subpar product. Not to mention it’s not really true. At the beginning of the decade, Microsoft got really stagnant as Apple leaped into the consumer market with truly better products. However, in recent years, Microsoft has created or strongly evolved their products that they are just as great if not better than Apple’s. Check out Microsoft Research if you don’t think Microsoft can be innovative.

All companies copy something. Is it copying if Company B is first to the market with a feature that Company A told the world at least a year ahead they would have in their next version of a product? Or is it copying if Company A releases the product to the market with the mentioned feature a month after Company B sold theirs? It shouldn’t matter. What’s important is that the product you buy will have the feature regardless who had it first.

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If there are any other myths or lies I should list, or if you want to make a point for or against one of them, I’d love to hear you in the comments. Thanks.

Office 365 : Quick overview for what’s coming later 2011

So by now, you’ve probably heard of something called Office 365 and know it’s associated with Microsoft Office. Here’s a quick breakdown of what the big deal about this is.

Office 365 Logo

Basically, it replaces something called Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS), Office Live, and Live@edu. BPOS offers large companies a subscription-based service for Microsoft-hosted Office apps. It can save businesses quite a lot of money in costs since you have Office and Office services running from Microsoft’s servers. However, it was mostly ideal for large companies due to the cost structures and what was offered. Office Live was an earlier effort for individuals and small businesses, that had very basic functionality. Now comes in Office 365.

Office 365 offers hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync. What makes it better than BPOS?

  • Latest 2010 version
  • Cheaper, tiers of pricing (choice!)
  • ability for individual use (used to require 5 or more licenses per account)
  • great for small businesses
  • 25GB e-mail inbox
  • Office Web Apps

So that’s great and everything, but the biggest competitor to this is Google Apps. Google Apps is free, and of course free is always very enticing. So why is Google Apps not necessarily the best choice?

  • No uptime guarantees (if their service goes down, you go down)
  • advanced security features
  • Outlook and BlackBerry compatibility
  • Industry-grade tools like Exchange, SharePoint, etc.

So it’s really nice to see that Microsoft is finally delivering on cloud computing as an option, and hope to see Office 365 be a success. The only bad thing I’d say is that there aren’t any free super-light options, but we’ll see if maybe Microsoft can find a way to make a free version of this. Maybe ad-supported or something.

Personally, I also am not entirely a fan of the name Office 365. Does the naming indicate they want you to use it every day for the rest of your life? I would have preferred it’d be something like Office Pro or Office Cloud or even Office Web? What’s your opinion on Office 365?