As I've mentioned before, Task Panes made their first appearance on the scene in March 2001, in Office XP. If you want to get the background on Task Panes, why they were added, and their role in modern Office UI, read this article or, better yet, the entire "Why the UI" series.

Because of our oft-stated design mantra "everything's in the Ribbon" some people have speculated that Task Panes are not a part of Office 12. This is not precisely true, although the content of many Task Panes have moved to the Ribbon and the role of Task Panes in the product has become more focused. There are many fewer of them, and the few which are left are more consistent in their behavior and reason for existing. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, let's talk about the mechanics of the Task Pane as it existed in previous versions. The Office XP/2003 UI includes a single, full-height pane docked to the right side of the window. This single pane could show one Task Pane at a time, and you could switch between the available ones using a dropdown menu at the top of the pane.

The Task Pane in action (Click to view full picture)

The Task Pane was used for at least four different kinds of UI.

First, it could act as a place to show secondary document information based on selection. The Styles and Formatting pane in Word, the Office Clipboard, and the Watch Window in Excel are good examples of this type of pane.

Second, the Task Pane was used as a kind of replacement for a wizard when it was deemed important to have access to the document while running the wizard. The Mail Merge pane in Word is an example of this.

Third, the Task Pane was sometimes used as a replacement for what should have probably been a dialog box. The Attachment Options pane in Outlook 2003 WordMail is an example of this.

Fourth, the Task Pane was used to show a set of visual choices, such as the Slide Design pane in PowerPoint 2003. These were mostly items moved out of dialog boxes so that the results of the visual choice could be seen without blocking your document content.

So, it already wasn't totally clear how the Task Pane was to be used. Adding to the confusion was that a number of the Task Panes had automatic launch behavior. This could be frustrating. For example, the Clipboard pane took over that space if you happened to press CTRL+C a few times in succession.

When we designed the Ribbon, we knew we had to reconcile it with the role of Task Panes. We considered removing all of them from the product entirely, but there were a few which did seem to make sense within the new design. So we struck a set of design principles to govern when and how would allow the use of Task Panes:

  • All Task Panes which had content consistent with the Ribbon were removed and integrated into the Ribbon. Slide Design in PowerPoint is an example of this, where it became its own Ribbon tab. This accounts for most of the Task Panes in the product.

  • Task Panes never come up automatically. They are always turned on or off by the user, and always from the Ribbon. This is how we've stayed true to "everything starts with the Ribbon." If you want a Task Pane as part of your document workspace, you can turn it on and we'll never mess with it.

  • Allow people to have multiple Task Panes up at once. To put people in better control of their screen real-estate, we've turned all of the Task Panes into lighter-weight panes that you can arrange as you like. If you want to include both Styles and Formatting and the Research pane as part of your workspace, go for it.

  • No Task Pane will show up at startup. This includes the Getting Started pane, which has been removed from the product.

  • No inter-Task Pane navigation. There's no dropdown list of Task Panes; the UI is organized into one place--the Ribbon. You can open the Clipboard pane from the Clipboard group on the Ribbon but not from some one-off list of panes hanging from Mail Merge.

The goal was to provide a predictable, consistent experience in which you are in control of what windows you see as part of your workspace. The Ribbon remains the one place to browse for functionality--there's no deep well of Task Panes to spelunk into. On the other hand, the panes that some people do love--such as Styles and Formatting--remain a part of the experience that you can turn on if you wish and we won't interfere with it through "auto" behavior.

Finally, to clarify the developer story: we added the ability to use the Task Pane in custom solutions in Office 2003 as part of the Smart Documents developer story. The good news is that this capability still exists and, in fact, has been upgraded pretty substantially in Office 12 as well.