The Limits of the Ribbon Revolution

Ribbon1

The Microsoft Office Ribbon is really starting to take off. I’ve seen it in three applications in the past two days: a mindmapping program (I’m under embargo so can’t say which one), SmartDraw 2007, and even something like Mindomo (tenminut.es review here), an online mindmapping program. Here is a bunch of other programs using the Ribbon: Essential Studio, Radius, SandRibbon, etc.

I was positive about the ribbon in a recent WSJ.com column (subscription only) which has led to death threats and old friends no longer talking to me. But I felt, and still feel, the ribbon is a big step forward in interface design. But I’m not sure that it will last. Here’s why.

Visio1Limits: The ribbon only makes sense for some programs. But which? The obvious distinction is between navigation and creativity/productivity. A browser doesn’t make sense, for example. But why not something like Visio? I have to assume it’s not laziness or lack of time that has meant that quite a few programs in the Office 2007 stable don’t actually use the ribbon (besides Visio, Outlook and Publisher don’t) so presumably it was decided the ribbon didn’t suit those programs. So we’re stuck now with two competing interface approaches — menus and ribbons. Is that making things simpler?

Licensing: Microsoft will only license it to non-competing programs. So, don’t expect to see it in all programs that might most benefit from it. Instead, expect to see OpenOffice et al develop something like a ribbon which is similar enough to look, well, similar, but not similar enough to flatten the learning curve. It may already have happened, since one or two of the ribbons I’ve seen don’t exactly feel very similar to Microsoft’s design. (How many of these Ribbon look alikes are actually licensees?)

Smartdraw1Poor design: The ribbon is designed, among other things, to increase the amount of space available for you to do stuff. Some programmers don’t seem to get this: the new SmartDraw, for example, has no way I can see of minimizing the Ribbon, severely reducing the amount of space to actually draw in. Ditto with Mindomo. (And as several readers of the column pointed out, why can’t we move the Ribbon around the screen or customize it? What is this? 1992?)

Mindomo4

Standards: The ribbon is supposed to be intuitive, and it is. Once you get it, there are very few commands that are elusive. The commands are grouped together well — more intuitively than the old menu system. But inevitably, as more programs adopt the ribbon approach users will get confused and mis-remember placement of functions. Mindomo, for example, doesn’t really follow the logic of other ribbon interfaces (‘Topic’ is the second ribbon name, and ‘Task Info’ the third. No logic for me there, and I’m a seasoned mindmapper.) SmartDraw has just one main ribbon and then smaller sub-ribbons on the right which makes some sense but requires a whole new attitude, not to mention weird mouse movements to get there:

Smartdraw2

Opting out: The big complaint about the Ribbon Revolution is that there’s no opting out of it. In none of the programs I have looked at is there a way to say “Ribbon? No thanks, give me back my menus. It took me 15 years to learn them and I want to stick with them.” I think this is a mistake not to give people that option.

I’m not saying the Ribbon is a bad idea. I think it’s great in Word and Excel. But it’s already beginning to feel that it should have been more flexible in its design. If Microsoft is serious about making this the new user interface, then it needs to take a long hard look at how it’s used beyond the narrow Office cubicle cluster.

Extending Del.icio.us

Del.icio.us has come up with a new Firefox extension which includes toolbar buttons, a menu, context menus and search engine:

Delext

Pretty neat, although for some reason my Firefox is behaving and won’t tolerate some popups. More on some alternatives to this in a future post.

Undermining the Browser

If it was from any other company it wouldn’t really matter, but Google’s Desktop Sidebar is important, not because it’s particularly new, but because it undermines the primacy of the browser.

Loose Wire ‘s WSJ.com column in June looked at desktop widgets like Konfabulator and Klips before, as well as existing sidebars like the Desktop Sidebar, put together in his spare time by software engineer Damian Kedzierski, 34, who lives in Katowice in southern Poland. Or the SpyderBar from New Orleans-based TGT Soft. In the longer term, Microsoft has indicated that it plans to incorporate a very similar approach in its next version of Windows. Yahoo!, of course, have already bought Konfabulator and I would be very surprised if someone doesn’t snap up Serence, the folk behind Klips, pretty soon.

That’s probably where the battle is going to be: the space on top of the browser. Google can find a way past Microsoft only if it’s able to supplant, or bypass, the browser as the main tool for not merely looking for information (like the search toolbar) but also how the information is displayed once it’s retrieved. That’s where the Sidebar comes in.

While I don’t think Google have done a particularly good job with the Sidebar. The weather widget, for example, only shows U.S. cities. There’s nothing new in there to surprise anyone who has used Damian’s Desktop Sidebar. But the power is not there, it’s in the fact that it channels all existing Google products — search, Gmail, presumably Google Earth etc later — straight to your desktop without going anywhere else first. The heat, finally, is on.

The Firefox Del.icio.us Toolbar

The guys at del.icio.us have launched a “very preliminary del.icio.us firefox toolbar at http://del.icio.us/toolbar/ :

The button icons are placeholders and a product of Joshua’s creative fury. If you bring up the ‘customize’ toolbar palette in firefox, you can rearrange, remove or place the buttons on on any other customizable firefox toolbar.

The icons are very basic, but somewhat charming. There’s not an awful lot going on, but the ‘about’ button is a useful addition, listing all the other people who have tagged the page you’re viewing.

The Anti-Phishing Toolbars That Didn’t

Here are the results of the toolbars that didn’t work out for me. Remember, the attack is clever enough to appear as a legitimate website in the URL box. The question is: Will the toolbar realise that’s not the only source of data appearing on the webpage?

 Charterone3

Earthlink’s Scamblocker toolbar came out neutral: The text reads While we can’t guarantee that this Web page is safe, ScamBlocker found no evidence that indicates fraud or Internet scam. Of course, neutral really isn’t good enough.

Earthlink1

Corestreet’s Spoofstick took a pretty straightforward punt on the site, and in doing so got it wrong too:

Charterone2

Other toolbars that threw up green lights were SpoofGuard and InspectorBrown:

Others

As mentioned in the previous post, Netcraft’s Antiphishing Toolbar spotted there was a problem. The text reads The page you are trying to visit has been blocked by the Netcraft Toolbar because it is believed to be part of a fraudulent phishing attack…. Are you sure you want to visit the page?

Netcraft

So, congratulations Netcraft. For the others, when I did this research I asked for some comment but so far have received invititations to chat but no detailed replies to my questions, except from InspectorBrown, which I’ve posted here. (Neither has the bank in question replied to my emailed questions.) If I do hear more I’ll pass it on.

I should point out that all of the toolbars are free, and could be regarded as altruistic efforts to halt the phishing plague. But I still believe that unless such tools offer really good protection against the inventiveness of phishers, they merely lull users into a false sense of security. If you want to fight the phishers, you’ve got to be smarter than this.

Clusty’s New Firefox Toolbar

Clusty, the new search engine from Vivisimo, has launched a new toolbar for Mozilla’s Firefox.

What I like about it is the ClustyClip feature that allows you to right-click on a word and open a matching dictionary or Wikipedia entry in a small pop-up window. Doesn’t always seem to work but it’s neat anyway.

An Internet Explorer version of the Clusty toolbar already exists. Firefox of course also offers a range of toolbar extensions that do quite similar things, including the Googlebar (not developed by Google).

How To Cut A Long URL Short

(This post was originally made a few months ago at the loose wire blog. As part of efforts to streamline Loose Wire’s online activities, the material at loose wire cache is being moved to the blog. A list of the resources can be under either the Resources list in the sidebar or the Resources category, also in the sidebar.)

A way to turn long URLs into short ones, so you can paste links into emails without them wrapping (and therefore becoming unusable) etc etc. In most cases you just visit the site, enter the URL you want to abbreviate, and hey presto! you get a new short URL that should last forever. (A lot of them can be added to your browser toolbar via Javascript which makes the whole thing even easier.)

 

This is not yet exhaustive; much of this list is from notlong.com, which compares their features.

Plaxo’s Trojan Horse

Was Plaxo just a Trojan Horse into Outlook?

Plaxo, the controversial contact management service, never really came clean on how it was going to make money, a fact which has contributed to user suspicion about its motives and its commitment to keeping secure and private all the contact data it handles and stores on behalf of unpaying customers. But now everything may be clear, after it quietly announced last week that it had partnered with Yahoo to build search into Plaxo’s toolbar in Outlook. Plaxo 2.0 will include the function, to be released this month.

As Nino Marchetti of the Unofficial Yahoo Weblog points out: “The take home from this is that Yahoo, through this partnership, has opened a door which could take traffic away from Google and other search engines by keeping people from leaving Outlook and going into their browsers until after they have already hit the Yahoo search button.” In other words: Outlook users won’t need to go to Google, or its desktop toolbar, to do a search.

Indeed, Plaxo’s efforts suddenly make more sense. The most expensive and desirable desktop real estate may not be in the browser — via some toolbar, or homepage, or whatever — but in Outlook, when a lot of people spend increasingly large parts of their day. While most Outlook add-ins take up only a button or two, Plaxo’s has taken up quite a bit of space, and is perfectly positioned to add the search feature. The result: Searches that bypass Google entirely.

As Plaxo’s press release puts it:  ”Yahoo! is continually seeking new ways to bring ubiquitous search access to Internet users,” said Tim Cadogan, vice president of Search at Yahoo, Inc. “By embedding Yahoo! Search in Plaxo 2.0, Yahoo! will facilitate seamless Internet searches for Plaxo’s fast-growing user base from within Outlook.”

Expect to see a lot more products that offer ‘valuable services’ via a toolbar in Outlook, but in fact are aimed at drawing traffic to certain sites. Browser toolbars are out; Outlook toolbars are in.

A New Search Engine, All The Old Issues

In case you haven’t heard, Amazon has launched its own search engine, A9 and a toolbar (for now compatible only with IE) which dovetails with your Amazon account.

Supposed advantages over other search engines (here’s A9’s own list):

  • Simultaneously searches Amazon’s book store while searching the web.
  • Amazon book search results, and a history of your previous searches, are easily accessed in neat, adjustable, vertical flaps.
  • Apart from offering the usual toolbar features — blocks popups, web search, highlights word matches, information on sites visited — it also offers a couple of interesting extras, including a history of previous searches, a way to add your reviews of sites visited, a diary where you can store notes on any particular webpage you visit and view when you revisit that webpage.

Disadvantages:

  • These last two elements — review, webpage notes — remind me of long dead web annotation services like uTok, Instant Rendezvous and Third Voice. Do Amazon think that going down this road is really ‘cool’? Am I missing something or wasn’t this where Alexa was before it was bought out by, er, Amazon? Or were these guys just a tad early to the blogging revolution?
  • Toolbar isn’t stable yet. Installation was a bit wobbly on my system
  • I’m not crazy about the colour scheme, but maybe that’s just me.
  • Under the hood the search engine is Google. Why change?

And then there’s the privacy stuff? This is a tough one. The Alexa toolbar, also owned by Amazon, has had a rocky history on this issue, since it, in its own words, ”COLLECTS AND STORES INFORMATION ABOUT THE WEB PAGES YOU VIEW, THE DATA YOU ENTER IN ONLINE FORMS AND SEARCH FIELDS, AND, WITH VERSIONS 5.0 AND HIGHER, THE PRODUCTS YOU PURCHASE ONLINE WHILE USING THE TOOLBAR SERVICE.” (Their upper case, not mine.)  

In a way, if you’re a customer of Amazon it’s a bit late to start worrying about privacy. As Amazon says on its A9 privacy policy page, “You provide information when you enter search terms; download and use our toolbar; communicate with us by phone, e-mail, or otherwise; and employ our other services. As a result of those actions, you might supply us with personally identifiable information or information about things that interest you.” I’m not going to make a call on this. Bottom line: If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your browsing habits with Amazon, you can use their ‘generic’ version of A9.

Time will tell whether A9 nips at Google’s own heels. What’s clear is that with the arrival of Gmail and A9, Google and Amazon hope they will be super portals, where folk go to do everything: buy stuff, check email, search the web, fall in love, marry, and stuff.

Dogpile’s RSS Toolbar Is Now Out

The guys at InfoSpace tell me their Dogpile toolbar, mentioned a few weeks back, is now out.

It will search the web, search white/yellow pages, block pop-ups (who doesn’t, these days?), run a customized ticker (which includes RSS feeds), and let you search for stuff just by right clicking your mouse. Needless to say, it requires Internet Explorer.

This is what they say about it:

The new Dogpile toolbar includes a scrolling content ticker that puts RSS and Atom headlines right into your Web browser.This allows you to continually monitor the latest from your favorite sources whenever you’re on the Web. You can also turn off the ticker and view content feeds from the “My Content” button located on the toolbar.When you click on the “My Content” button, an expandable menu drops down to display all your feeds and headlines.

The new Dogpile Toolbar also makes syndicated XML content more accessible for mainstream Web users by simplifying the location and accessing of  feeds. Using the automated content scanner, new feeds can be added to the toolbar in two simple steps.Users simply visit a Web site and select “Add Content” from a drop down menu located on the toolbar to view a list of available feeds from that site.To add feeds, users select any number from those available and add them with the click of a button.

Sounds like it’s well worth checking out.