Gates pledges more ribbon UI capabilities for Windows

Microsoft chairman also talks about open source at the Office System Developer Conference.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said Monday that the Windows application platform is to be fitted with "Fluent UI" ribbon capabilities now offered in Office 2007.

The ribbon UI presents a new interface in Office 2007. "We usability-tested it massively, and fortunately, it has had a very strong positive reaction," Gates said during a keynote presentation the 2008 Office System Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif. "We in the next version of Windows will be using this Fluent UI quite a bit across a number of applications," he said. "It turns out it's a user interface that works very well for the pen and touch [interfaces] as well as being a better way of revealing application functionality."

The Fluent UI represented "a major risk that Microsoft took," Gates said. But the older interface with its dropdown menus was hiding so much functionality that the company was being asked for features that were already there but were concealed, he said.

At the conference, Microsoft is promoting Office as a development platform with users able to write extensions. During Gates's presentation, third party applications were shown that extended Office with custom development, such as the MindJet MindManager planning application and FedEx's QuickShip for processing FedEx shipments from within Microsoft Outlook.

During a subsequent question-and-answer session with the audience, Gates was asked to compare and contrast opportunities for developers working with platforms like Microsoft's with platforms like open source. Gates responded, "Our platform is a commercial platform where customers expect a very high level of service, a very high level of integration, but the nice thing about it is they are willing to pay for software."

Free software has always been around, he said. "We've always had free software out there, it's not really a new thing. In fact, I'd say in some ways it's less of a factor than it's ever been," Gates said.

Everyone has the same business model, he said: Software developers have free versions of their software, inexpensive software, and robust commercial versions of their software. "The commercial environment, I think, will always be the pre-eminent thing in terms of providing business productivity," said Gates.

He advised those who want to develop free software to be careful which licensing model they choose and to select an option that does not restrict commercial versions of their software.

Asked about Yahoo, which has rejected Microsoft's $44.6 billion acquisition offer, Gates said the question was whether Yahoo should be a media company or focus on engineering. In an ad model, scale is needed, he said. Yahoo's engineering could be combined with what Microsoft has done, he said.

Gates's overall presentation did not impress one attendee, who nonetheless was impressed with Gates himself.

"Bill is definitely a visionary, and he's one of the greatest men in the 20th century, but I have to wonder how much of that was just reading from a script," said Aaron Alanen, senior consultant at Sogeti.

"I did see in his questions later on that he really had some deeper knowledge," Alanen said.

During Gates's presentation, he also played a tongue-in-cheek video about what he would do during his upcoming semi-retirement from Microsoft. Included were possibilities such as getting into politics, joining the rock band U2, and becoming a rapper or actor. Guests featured in the video included, among others, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Bono from U2, and George Clooney.

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