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Microsoft Puts 'Ribbon' UI on Windows 8 Explorer

Windows Explorer, the file management system used in Windows operating systems, will be redesigned for the upcoming Windows 8 OS to run the "ribbon" user interface, Microsoft announced on Monday.

Microsoft elaborated on the file management changes coming to Windows 8 in a recent Building Windows 8 blog post, with the implementation of the ribbon UI being the most noteworthy. The ribbon is a panel of grouped commands, organized by tabs, located at the menu bar level. The command groupings change depending on the context, a feature that has drawn criticism from many users.

Microsoft is also bringing back the "up" button, which had been cut by the time of Windows Vista's release. Microsoft is restoring it in Windows 8 as one of the most requested features.

The use of the ribbon UI for Explorer in Windows 8 may cause a little groaning among some. Power users reportedly haven't liked it too much, and others seem confused by it. Microsoft first went to the ribbon UI with the release of Office 2007, explaining at the time that the old nested menu system had grown too deep, making it hard to find commands. To ease skittish Office 2007 and Office 2010 users, Microsoft created a Ribbon Hero game featuring the much reviled Clippy Office help character, which now appears in a new role to help users grow accustomed to, and like, the ribbon UI.

The Windows Explorer ribbon UI in Windows 8 will have three main tabs -- Home, Share and View -- in addition to a File tab. Microsoft's blog acknowledged that power users may not welcome the ribbon for file management, but claimed three benefits from the approach.

  1. The ribbon exposes "hidden" features that previously required add-ons by third-party software vendors (such as TeraCopy, FastCopy, QTTabBar and xplorer2) to use.

  2. The ribbon enables shortcuts for every command (there are more than 200 commands in Windows Explorer).

  3. Ribbon use in Windows 8's Explorer will enable a level of customization that's equivalent to Windows XP, according to the blog.

On top of those benefits, Microsoft claims that the ribbon offers a better touch experience than the old pull-down menus.

Microsoft continues to enable third-party software vendors to create add-ons for Windows 8. However, commands for those add-ons will only be exposed via right-mouse-button click in Windows 8. Microsoft's blog flatly states that "add-ins will not be able to plug into the ribbon UI."

IT professionals likely will appreciate two File menu commands in Windows 8, namely "open command prompt" and "open command prompt as administrator." These commands will launch a command-line window that's set to the path of a selected folder.

Microsoft also described another useful addition to Windows 8 for those who work with ISO files. These files use a format (described by the International Organization for Standardization or ISO) for creating disc images, which can be used across systems. Windows 8 will remove a step where ISO files have to be burned to an optical disk in order to access the contents. Windows 8 instead creates a "virtual CDROM or DVD drive" to access the data, according a Tuesday Building Windows 8 blog post. After accessing the contents, users just "unmount" the ISO file via a right-mouse-button click. The virtual CD/DVD drive disappears after being ejected.

Microsoft plans to offer a similar capability in Windows 8 for handling virtual hard disks (VHDs). VHDs will appear in Windows 8 Explorer as new hard drives. Users will be able to access and modify files within the VHD as if they were actual physical drives. Like ISO files, VHDs can be ejected via a right-mouse-button click. Various Microsoft flagship technologies utilize the VHD format. For instance, Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor uses the VHD format for information storage in virtual machines. VHD is also used with Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 to create bootable files or to save a snapshot of a system.

Here's a scorecard of features expected in Windows 8, as revealed by Microsoft so far:

Windows 8 Feature

Source/Chronology

System-on-chip integration on ARM platform designs, as well as x86 platforms from AMD and Intel, enabling new form factors for devices

Steve Ballmer at the Computer Electronics Show, January (link)

Touch-enabled user interface similar to Windows Phone 7, along with traditional menu access via mouse and keyboard

Steven Sinofsky at All Things Digital's D9 event and Mike Angiulo at Computex Taipei, June (link)

Backward compatibility with hardware that can run Windows 7

Steven Sinofsky, Building Windows 8 blog, August (link)

An App Store link built into the OS

Steven Sinofsky, Building Windows 8 blog, August (link)

USB 3.0 support

Dennis Flanagan, Building Windows 8 blog, August (link)

Management of multiple copy jobs via a single dialog box

Alex Simons, Building Windows 8 blog, August (link)

Ribbon user interface for Windows Explorer for file management

Alex Simons, Building Windows 8 blog, August

Quick access to the contents of ISO files and VHD files

Rajeev Nagar, Building Windows 8 blog, August

More on Windows 8:

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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