Microsoft is working hard on its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, and will be sharing pre-release builds in time for its BUILD conference. In a bit to strike up more public interest, the Windows 8 development team has given some sneak peeks into the latest Windows Explorer interface. The main highlight: ribbons.

If you're familiar with the ribbon interface introduced in Office 2007, it's back with a vengeance, and will permeate into Windows users even more deeply. Microsoft research has found out that most Explorer functions are accessed either through context menus or keyboard shortcuts, and is therefore ditching the familiar menubar interface in favor of a contextual ribbon.

Microsoft Windows 8 Explorer Ribbons
Windows 8 will feature oft-accessed functions in a contextual ribbon, instead of the familiar menubar interface

Survey results from Microsoft's Customer Experience Improvement Program say that 54.5% of commands are invoked using contextual menu or right-clicking, and 32.2% from keyboard shortcuts. As only 10.9% are run through the menu bar, keeping the old "File, Edit, View, Tools ..." interface will just take up space. Windows 7's Explorer actually has these hidden, and will only appear when you press the Alt key.

Preparing for Touch Interfaces

The Windows 8 development team says that a ribbon interface would best address the need to have efficient access to oft-used commands, but still keeping the user interface streamlined. This also addresses another prominent need, which will help future-proof Windows 8. Being an operating system meant for both desktop and mobile platforms, switching to a ribbon interface makes Explorer more touch-friendly.

[T]he ribbon would allow us to create an optimized file manager where commands would have reliable, logical locations in a streamlined experience. The flexibility of the ribbon with many icon options, tabs, flexible layout and groupings also ensured that we could respect Explorer?s heritage. We could present a rich set of commands without removing access to previously top-level commands, something we knew was really important to our customers.

The Windows 8 team has put the most-commonly accessed commands under the "Home" tab, and has made sure these are likewise easily-accessible via keyboard shortcuts, clearly meant for power users who would rather type keyboard shortcuts than hunt for icons onscreen.

Exposing and Exploring Hidden Gems

Aside from making it easier for users to access commonly-used tasks, the new Windows 8 Explorer interface will also give easy access to so-called "hidden gems," which are Windows features that are oft-overlooked. An example includes more powerful selective-searches in the Explorer Search tab, which can better narrow down searches by scope. Another example is easy access to power-user features like "run as administrator" and "copy path," again aimed at advanced users.

Windows 8 Share Tab
The Windows 8 "Share" ribbon tab lets users easily share information through email or other messaging.

Microsoft is taking strides in ensuring better usability for Windows 8, in the aim of making it more well-suited across different devices. This includes desktop-based computers with a traditional keyboard and pointer interface, as well as smartphones and tablets with a touchscreen interfaces.

The ribbon will be a big jump for most Windows users, some of whom might find it to have a steep learning curve, requiring much re-learning. But seeing how the post-PC world prefers simpler, uncluttered interfaces, is Microsoft prepared to take a gamble with this drastic UI change?