What’s so special about the ribbon control?

Having seen Autocad 2009 I was exploring the usage of tab controls for a modeling application and that is when I read about the ribbon control being patented. I was kinda shocked to see that, not surprised though. I don’t get it. What’s so special with the ribbon control that it warrants a patent for it? If you look at it objectively it’s nothing more than a tab control with fancy buttons and controls and a carefully managed layout system. The layout system could probably be done with existing layout systems present in Qt and wxWidgets. OK, so toolkits like MFC and the newer .NET ones don’t have fancy layouts, but nothing has been innovated and is certainly not to an extent of being ground-breaking as claimed. Please! Many (many) applications already have tabbed tool-bars. Having controls, pretty pictures, an outlandish theme and a cool name doesn’t automatically qualify something as an innovation. OK, I would agree that that those tabbed menus do offer productivity, or maybe not (depends on the user’s taste) but the fact remains that tabs controls have been in GUI systems ever since GUI itself became mainstream.

Unfortunately I have never used Office 2007. All of my documents are done using Open-Office, so I really don’t know what “special” innovation Microsoft has done with the ribbon. I however, have used the tab-notebook far too often in GUI designs. I know the patent hasn’t been acquired yet, but to turn around, replace menus with tabs and claim that somehow this is an innovation, is outrageous. Having a patent just complicates matters. As said on the wiki page “the ribbon is licensed to third-party developers royalty free” but the control has to conform to Microsoft’s guidelines and users have to sign an NDA. So let me get this straight, if I were to use a tab-notebook control in my application and somehow “infringe” on the patent, then would it mean I am in for a lawsuit from MS? Oh OK then, whenever I use the tab-notebook I have to let Microsoft know about it. Wow!

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