For the last year or so, one of the questions I've been asked again and again has been: "Can I use the new Office user interface in my own product?"

On one hand, it's an immensely satisfying question to hear, because it means that others in the industry believe in the value of what we've built and see how the sound UI research we've done can benefit their own products. Creating the new user interface has been our team's passion for the last three years, and we love sharing the fruits of this hard work.

On the other hand, the new Office user interface was a huge investment by Microsoft and the resulting intellectual property belongs to Microsoft.

As a result, I've never been totally comfortable answering questions about whether people can use the new UI or not publicly because, honestly, I didn't really know the answer. You might have noticed I've been pretty quiet on the subject.

Internally, though, more than a year ago we started talking about how we could share the design work we've done more broadly in a way that also protects the value of Microsoft's investment in this research and development.

Well, I'm pleased to finally be able to definitively answer the question. Today, we're announcing a licensing program for the 2007 Microsoft Office system user interface which allows virtually anyone to obtain a royalty-free license to use the new Office UI in a software product, including the Ribbon, galleries, the Mini Toolbar, and the rest of the user interface.

Last week, I recorded a video along with Judy Jennison, the lawyer who has been spearheading the licensing effort, to chat about the UI license in detail. Take a look, or keep reading to learn more.

(If you ever wondered what my office looks like, here's your chance!)

Watch the Channel 9 video about the Office 2007 UI License

How does the license work?

It's pretty simple really. First, you visit the Office UI Licensing web site. On this page, you'll find some information about the licensing program, a downloadable copy of the license to peruse at your leisure, and further contact information.

If you choose to implement the Office UI, you sign up for the program by accepting the license terms and giving us a little bit of information about your product. There's no fee, you don't owe Microsoft any royalties, and the license is perpetual—meaning that the terms won't change.

This should give you the confidence you need to build a business or product on top of the Office UI platform, secure in the knowledge that you've licensed the technology and research you're using in your product.

You must follow the guidelines, though.

Included with the license you'll find the 2007 Microsoft Office System User Interface Guidelines. This 120+ page document includes all of the information you need to implement Office-style UI; think of it as the specification for how the UI needs to work in your product.

To stay within the terms of the license, you must follow these guidelines.

We want to ensure that when someone implements the Ribbon (for example) that they do so the right way… and in a way consistent with how it works in Office.

There's tremendous value in making sure that we all use these models in a consistent way, because it helps to ensure that people have predictable user experiences moving between Office-style user interfaces.

In the guidelines you'll find REQUIRED sections and OPTIONAL sections. The REQUIRED sections are exactly that—sections that you must implement in order to stay within the letter of the license.

Within each section, you'll see things you MUST implement, things you SHOULD implement, and BEST PRACTICES. Just like it sounds, you must implement the UI as specified by the MUSTs in the document to comply with the terms of the license. We highly recommend implementing the SHOULD sections, and also adhering to the BEST PRACTICES wherever possible. Doing so will make you as consistent as possible with the way Office works.

The 120+ page guidelines document is confidential, so you'll need to visit the licensing site and agree to a short evaluation license before downloading it. But we created a little preview version of one of the sections to give you a flavor of what the guidelines are like.

The particular section we excerpted for the preview is Ribbon Resizing, which details the way in which the Ribbon must scale up and down to adjust to varying horizontal resolutions. The actual guidelines document contains similar information for the entire UI.

Download the 2007 Microsoft Office System UI Guidelines Preview (1.39 MB)

If your goal is to get as close to the Office UI as possible, you'll probably have no trouble complying with the guidelines. The guidelines are just there to help make that process easier and to give you a checklist for the parts of the UI you need to implement in order to comply with the license.

What's the catch?

For almost everyone, there's no catch at all. Just sign up for the license, and follow the guidelines. That's all there is to it.

You can use the UI in open source projects as long as the license terms are consistent with our license. You can use it on any platform: Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. If you're an ISV, you can build and sell a set of controls based on the new Office UI.

There's only one limitation: if you are building a program which directly competes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, or Access (the Microsoft applications with the new UI), you can't obtain the royalty-free license.

Why this exclusion?

Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the research, design, and development of the new Office user interface.

We're allowing developers to license this intellectual property and take advantage of these advances in user interface design without any fee whatsoever.

But we want to preserve the innovation for Microsoft's productivity applications that are already using the new UI.

Summary

I am really excited to finally see this program launch. There's nothing our team wants more than to see the concepts and designs introduced in Office benefit others in the software industry. I believe in the new user interface, and I believe in its suitability to a large number of software applications.

I think the license strikes the right balance between allowing developers to use the new Office UI and protecting Microsoft's rights as the company who paid all of us to work on it.

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