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Will cutting the “Ribbon” finally fix Office for Mac?

Yesterday, at its annual conference for IT pros, Microsoft revealed a new version of Outlook for Mac. The Verge published a glimpse of the app’s revamped interface, and it looks promising—simultaneously cleaner and more useful.

We’ll see more of that refined UI tomorrow. Meanwhile, let’s examine why Microsoft might be eager to dump an interface element that has dominated its software design for over a decade.


Ribbons on the Mac

I’ve generally been a fan of Microsoft’s “Ribbon” UI, which premiered in Office 2007 for Windows. It exposed features previously buried in submenus, and it simplified the productivity suite’s legendarily complex toolbars:

The Ribbon UI was successful enough that it eventually migrated to Office for Mac. Unfortunately (and ironically), on OS X, the Ribbon created the same problem it was designed to solve: interface cruft.

More specifically, the Ribbon conflicts with a permanent fixture of macOS: the menu bar. Every Office for Mac app has two similar yet contradictory menus—the operating system’s persistent menu and Office’s Ribbon. Making matters worse, some of the heading titles in these two menus are identical, while the options within those sections are not. This unfortunate mess leaves the user with no idea where to find a given feature—the Ribbon? The menu bar? Both? Neither?

Let’s visualize this problem. In each screenshot below, I’ve highlighted the duplicative menu items. First, PowerPoint for Mac, which boasts two redundant headers:

‘View’ and ‘Slide Show’ appear in both the Ribbon and the macOS menu bar.

Next, Excel, which has three:

Word:

OneNote:

Finally, there’s good (?) old Outlook:

For each menu pair, the submenus are not one-for-one identical. They have different items, different orders, and vastly different interfaces. And there’s no obvious explanation for why only some menu titles pull double duty. Why are there two “Insert” menus but only one “Format” menu?

In addition to confusing the user, these duplicative menus cramp the interface, consuming an unnecessary amount of vertical space.


A new hope?

So… does the new Outlook, with its “Ribbonless” interface, fix these problems?

Image courtesy of The Verge.

Honestly, I’m not sure it’s the perfect solution. This interface still spends a lot of vertical pixels.

On the other hand, because I’m so excited to see the redundant menus vanquished, I’m willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. I can’t wait to try the new app.

So… what about the other Office apps? Microsoft tells the Verge that “there are no plans to announce updates to the ribbon elsewhere on Office for Mac” (emphasis mine). That’s an interesting way to phrase this statement. Microsoft isn’t denying that possibility of the feature being in their pipeline; they just claim that they haven’t planned its reveal. Tricksy.

My guess: if the new Outlook app is well-received, we’ll eventually see the Ribbon (and its redundant menus) removed from Office for Mac, for good. ■

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apple

Stranger in a strange land: a long-time Windows power user switches to the Mac

I spent decades using Windows as my primary computing platform. I may not love Microsoft’s OS, but I had learned to live with it, tolerating its quirks and forgiving its faults. By the time I had turned thirty, I was comfortable (if not quite content) in the Windows world.

More recently, though, Apple has managed to win me over. Since picking up an iPod Touch back in 2009, I’ve bought nearly a dozen different iOS devices. Then, I installed OS X in a VM, just so that I could run Omnifocus. And finally, this past July, I switched to an actual Mac as my full-time machine.

Adopting macOS wasn’t quite what I expected—hardly the aesthetic epiphany promised in those old John Hodgman ads. Here are some thoughts on switching to the Mac as a long-time Windows user:

The good!

  • After years spent Alt-Tabbing back and forth from a VM, I’m glad to have all my favorite software integrated into a single platform. There’s only one machine to shut down at day’s end, and I can freely shuffle data between apps. For example, I can now use AppleScript to push work emails to Omnifocus in just a few keystrokes.
  • I love that the Mac gets so much attention from design-minded software developers. Drafts, Fantastical, and Tweetbot are now indispensable parts of my daily workflow; none of these apps have true equivalents in the Windows world.

The bad.

  • Windows may lack polished indie apps, but there’s an equivalent problem on the Mac: underbaked enterprise-grade software. Microsoft Office is far superior on Windows: faster, more reliable, and more feature-rich. In fact, I’m forced to keep a PC close at hand, just so that I can occasionally boot into Windows to fix the formatting of an email or a PowerPoint deck.
  • It’s not just Microsoft’s apps, either. Cisco’s Webex is terrible on all platforms, but it’s far worse on the Mac. It takes me twice as long to join meetings as my Windows-running colleagues, and entire features are absent in the Mac app. For example, I can’t choose which display to share when I’m on a conference call.
  • macOS’s native PDF export options are surprisingly sub-par. Back on Windows, the PDF print dialog offers a rich suite of formatting options. But on the Mac, exporting a PDF feels like a guessing game, with no rich preview and a paltry set of levers to try.
  • I miss the ability to pin documents to apps in the taskbar (or the Dock, in macOS parlance). The built-in “Open Recent” command doesn’t cut it—and it’s only available when the app itself is open!
  • Windows is far better than the Mac when it comes to onscreen app arrangement. “Snapping” windows works so well that the Mac’s “Split View” feels like an afterthought. Yes, you can install third-party Mac utilities that imitate Window’s native behavior (I’m partial to Magnet), but that functionality should come baked in, for free.
  • Finally, this isn’t a software issue, but I don’t understand the MacBook’s charging brick. On the one hand, I like being able to disconnect the USB-C cable and wrap it up separately. On the other hand, the pluggable brick can easily fall out of some outlets, depending on the angle and slot design. That never happened with the PC power cords I’m used to.

The ugly.

  • macOS feels slow. Honestly, Windows feels downright snappy. On the Mac, it takes longer to launch programs, switch between them, and close them at day’s end. And macOS’s penchant for animating everything often gets in my way. Windows somehow felt “closer to the metal” (even if that’s not technically true).1
  • The Mac’s window model drives me crazy. For some reason, closing an app’s window doesn’t close the app. Instead, the program hangs around, burning resources in the background. And because there’s no easy way to close apps with the mouse, I often end up with far more apps open than I need.
  • There’s something wonky about macOS’s Bluetooth stack. I can’t use more than one Bluetooth device at a time. When I connect both my Logitech mouse and my Plantronics headset, audio playback stutters and skips. This is apparently a known issue, and there are a variety of proposed workarounds, but this never happened on my PC.

Wrap-up

To be fair, most of my complaints boil down to unfamiliarity. A life-long Mac user would probably have the reverse experience switching to Windows. For me, though, macOS feels like foreign territory; I don’t know the terminology and I sometimes struggle to find my way around. ■


  1. FWIW, my most recent Windows machine and this 2017 MacBook Pro are roughly equal, spec-wise. ↩︎