The Great Vista/Mac Showdown: Desktop convergence

The Great Vista/Mac Showdown: Desktop convergence

Summary: The return to the Mac/Vista showdown has been languishing as I actually used the two systems for a while. During the past few weeks, I’ve found that I continually gravitate to the MacBook Pro because of its deep integration between the hardware and software.

TOPICS: Hardware

The return to the Mac/Vista showdown has been languishing as I actually used the two systems for a while. During the past few weeks, I’ve found that I continually gravitate to the MacBook Pro because of its deep integration between the hardware and software. It has shortcomings, but the system is so much more responsive on startup, waking from sleep and maintaining connections as I move from one place to another than with a Vista PC.

Yet, based on the experience of using Vista, I am convinced that Windows is much improved. How, though, to explain the remaining differences? In previous installments, I’ve examined packaging, memory management, networking, Bluetooth and system migration. Now, it’s time to look at the day-to-day experience, starting with life on the desktop.

The Vista desktop and Mac OS X desktops are very similar, because they've both evolved from the same background, the various experiments in computing by Xerox PARC in the 1970s. PARC veteran Larry Tesler, in particular, along with Bill Atkinson, who while working on the Apple Lisa and Mac desktop user experiences came up with the implementations of most of the features we are familiar with today: Pull-down menus; mouse-based navigation and pop-up menus. 

So, today, desktop navigation revolves around folders, files, pop-up menus and mouse-clicks. Consider the results of Right-clicking the Vista desktop (below right) compared to CTRL+clicking the Mac OS X desktop (below left):

The Vista desktop pop-up menu Mac OS X desktop pop-up menu

Pretty similar, both in design and content. Windows Vista, however, hews to the Microsoft focus on customization of the view while the Mac pop-up is aimed more at functionality the user may need just at that moment, such as creating a folder or folder for burning a writable optical disc. True, you can find the New Folder command, as well as handy shortcut, compressed folder and Briefcase folders, one layer below this top-level Vista pop-up (see below), but I just don't see the point in being able to create a wide range of application files from the desktop. It's an example of how Microsoft pours so many options into the UI that the simplicity of the system is lost in presented options.

Vista's New Pop-up sub-menu: Too crowded I prefer the Mac OS X focus on getting things done. Since Tesler and Atkinson's day, Mac features have shied away from customization, which creates additional complexity. On the desktop, the CTRL+click deals with folder-level management and automation in the form of Automator and Folder Actions (both forms of scripting) that can be attached to a folder. You get a lot out of this without having to know anything about scripting, and still can change the desktop background more quickly that in Vista, which requires you open the Personalize window and click another icon to begin the selection of another picture.

Like most folks, including Larry Tesler, who initially advocated fervently for a one-button mouse, I've embraced the three-button mouse because it makes simple physical commands more convenient by reducing key combinations to a one-hand operation. Yet, the Vista desktop commands are accessible through only the right-click and are still oriented to the customization of the view of folders and files. The Graphics Properties and Options as much as the View and Sort By commands are about changing the display of data rather than accomplishing the tasks I associate with a desktop.

Windows relies more keyboard shortcuts, generally, and the Mac has gravitated in that direction over the years. But my memory isn’t tuned to things like three-key commands. I rely on the commands accessible through the mouse-click, regardless of the OS. On the Mac, I have to try different F keys to find the command that opens the Widgets panel. I do know the print keyboard command (z-P) on the Mac, but select Print from the File Menu in Windows applications and on the desktop. 

Mac OS always presents its basic menu set at the top of the screen, providing far more flexibility from a static set of menus than the complicated combo-clicking available in Vista. The emphasis on customization in Windows, as I explained near the beginning of this series, stems from the wider range of hardware on which that OS runs, which demands more capability than may be needed for simple user experience.

Now, you may love keyboard shortcuts. More power to you. I'm more interested in keeping my mind on the content I am trying to get out of it onto a page than remembering how to indent or change the desktop background with a couple keystrokes. For me, then, the Mac remains a more undertstandable and pleasing desktop.

Next, we'll look at how the options multiply as one begins to explore using files from the desktop. 

Topic: Hardware

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  • slight correction

    Neither OS is particularly evolved from the Xerox Parc work. If you actually
    compare the original Parc GUI with System 1 for Macintosh, you'll find very few
    similarities. Apple did take some of Parc's ideas, but the myth that Apple basically
    bought or stole Parc's GUI ideas wholesale is just that, a myth.

    As far as Microsoft building on Parc's work, that's just simply not true. Windows
    was built on Mac OS, so much so that there was a lawsuit about it. Apple lost, not
    because MS wasn't copying the Apple GUI wholesale, but because the court ruled
    that an earlier code sharing contract between Apple and MS ALLOWED MS to copy
    Apple's GUI wholesale.

    But that's really neither here nor there. As you've discovered, just looking
    superficially similar does not mean functionally similar. Apple's usability is not
    perfect, but it's light years ahead of Microsoft, and probably always will be
    because at MS, like 99% of all other software companies, programmers do design,
    and programmers, as a rule, stink at design, through no fault of their own.

    You see, in order for a programmer to be good at his job, he needs to behave like
    a computer thinks. However, the purpose of good design is to make the computer
    behave the way a person thinks, not force a person to behave the way a computer
    thinks. Thus, when a developer does design, you get things that make excellent
    sense from a computer's point of view, but horrible sense from a user's point of
    • Revisionist History

      To deny OSx and Windows roots in the work done at PARC is to be truly misinformed. the mouse and GUI interface were both Xerox innovations that came directly out of PARC.
      • You're both right (and wrong)...

        You're both right (and wrong). Xerox was one of the first companies to develop a
        GUI for a computer and use the mouse, but Apple still didn't steal it from Xerox.
        Apple gave them shares in their company and hired on some Xerox programmers to
        work on the original Macintosh. The Mac OS was most certainly inspired by the Star
        computer and its GUI, likewise, Microsoft was most certainly inspired by the Mac OS.

        Apple was, however, the first company to introduce a consumer desktop machine
        that included a mouse as the main means of operation. I'm sure a lot of people
        remember Dvorak's famous prediction regarding the mouse.
        • So then just exatly how was I wrong?(nt)

          • Perhaps not, I misread. Sorry. Just clarifying. [nt]

          • Wrong here and here...

            Mac came from Lisa - which was inspired by Xerox Parc (as were all other gui's).

            Microsoft was NOT particularly emulating Mac with its GUI. It was responding to LOTS of alternatives out there - such as GEM and AmigaDOS and Motif (on Unix) and.... Mac did not start out as a big numbers player - the cost alone saw to that. I seem to remember that Lisa hit withg a cost of $10,000 ?? (that may be Canadian dollars though :) )

            Research and development of GUI features was intertwined and not subject to sorting out - as all the different methods of getting the job done have converged over the years to where anyone who runs a GUI can generally find their way around in any of them (though perhaps not without some muttering under the breath once in while!)
          • Not wrong at all!

            Everything you mention is a derivative work of what occurred at PARC.
        • Hmm, not quite right on the time line

          The fact is there was a general purpose system offered by Xerox with a full GUI operating system back in the early 80's it was marketed as a word processor but it ran other software quite readily. I know I worked on one back when I was working my way through school. I often wished that the other computers in the office (a TRS-80c and an IBM 5140) had an OS as sweet and fast as the GEMS system on the Xerox. It's a shame Xerox never really pushed the system in the market instead allowing it to settle in a small niche of commercial word processing.
      • For the sake of historical accuracy

        The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart around 1964
        while working at Sandford Research Institute. He later patented
        his invention in 1970.

        But Engelbart and Xerox's mouse were both simple point and
        click devices. Apple actually gave us the rest of the mouse
        behaviors we all know and love: double click, click and hold,
        click and drag, drag and drop, multiple clicks and more.

        The original Mac GUI was never a direct copy of Xerox's GUI. Nor
        did it use any of Xerox's code. Most of the development work for
        the Lisa GUI was complete before Apple's famous visit to PARC.
        Apple already had former PARC engineers on its team and would
        continue to attract them afterwards. So you could certainly say
        that the Apple engineers were inspired by Xerox's use of the
        desktop metaphor, but to say Xerox invented the Mac GUI is a
        complete distortion that seeks to limit the degree of Apple's
        actual contribution to desktop computing.

        Apple pioneered perhaps the largest GUI innovation. The Mac
        Toolbox. The GUI religion that says "all apps under the Mac OS
        will subscribe to the following conventions" and those
        conventions started with the top menu bar and the fixed
        position of the Apple, File, Edit, Special, Window, Help menus.
        Standardized Open, Save, Alert dialogs, Control Panels,
        Windows, Buttons, Variable width text. All the things that
        brought consistency between applications and intuitive
        simplicity to computers for the first time. Pretty well everything
        you take for granted in the Windows GUI all started on Mac.
        Len Rooney
        • Didn't you know?

          According to the NBM group, Microsoft is the creator of all things wonderful in the
          computing world. Without Microsoft, the world would not have computers. Macs
          aren't real computers, they're just overpriced toys! So says Steve Ballmer, the NBM
          crowd rejoices his words of wisdom.
          • Try reality.

            Windows users recognize Mac has the black box advantage and is a nice OS. Windows users are going for a totally different experience is all. Windows has never preached to be anything more than a solid choice that works on a variety of hardware. <br>
            And the funny thing about your post is, and I'm only speaking for myself, i hate Ballmer. I wish they would have ditched him years ago. He's held them back by trying to milk every release of Windows for all it had and holding back innovation (that MS R&D has had all along) in the meantime. I do NOT like Steve Ballmer at all. And to be very honest here Rick, I've never seen a Windows person really go out of their way to praise Ballmer for anything. I bet you'd be hard pressed to find a good example. <br>
            I think you are just trying to find a figure that matches up with the loyalty Mac users have to Jobs. Ballmer and Jobs have two completely different occupations basically. While Jobs does have a knack for creating value, I find him every bit the weasel Ballmer is behind the scenes. He's proven that to me sufficiently over the years.
            But it's wrong to claim Windows users praise Ballmer and think MS is the center of the universe. Hell no, we just want to be at peace with the rest of the community and get past all of the hatred out there towrad MS thrown around day in and day out. A lot of good decent people, millions of them, are using Windows everyday in good faith to do a good job and it's about time the never ending smear campaigns by others stop. Jobs needs to stop. FSF needs to stop. Show the class they claim to have. <br>
            There are only around 10 to 20% of users here on Windows you know. Dispute it if yhou want, but the zdnet polls show the same stats over and over. It's clear. See, from my perspective I can see there are more anit-MS people, and I'm pretty darn sure I'm right, but like you I may magnify each anti-ms statement so it only seems that way. <br>
            But there are simply more Linux/Apple people using this forum, so I'd bet on that one. But it doesn't matter. Let's just drop the ABM, NBM thing and share useful information.
          • Yawn. Now lets do the obvious response you're waiting for

            According to the ABM group, Apple is the creator of all things wonderful in the computing world. Without Apple, the world would not have computers. PC's aren't real computers, they're just overpriced toys! So says Steve Jobs, the ABM crowd rejoices his words of wisdom.

            There, ya happy? Now run along and let the grown-ups talk...
            John Zern
          • Technically true

            Technically that's true. It was Apple that caused IBM to panic then rush out to build a PC with off the shelf parts and get an OS written by another company. IBM would have preferred to build that PC with thier own IBM inhouse closed components and written thier own OS for it. Apple just forced IBM to rush and buy the parts off the shelf and forced them to shop for a OS which just happened to be Microsoft. The fact that the hardware was just off the shelf parts meant Compact could reverse engineer the BIOS giving us clone combined with a contract goof up by IBM that allowed Microsoft to suppply the OS to any manufacturer made the PC market fly.

            Had it not been for Apple then Microsoft wouldn't be where they are today. What could have happened is speculation but it could have ended with us today connecting the interent with dumb terminals and paying for CPU cyles on mainframes get the fancy stuff we have today.

            On a side note:

            Apple is kind of in the position IBM was. Not exactly but similar. Isn't it only a chip on the Apple MOBO that stops you from installing on generic hardware? Hmmm, sound kind of like what happened with IBM and thier special chip on then MOBO that did the same thing. We all know what happened to IBM. Will the same happen to Apple?
          • Not really

            Altair was the begining for both.

            I've never read anywher that anyone felt Apple "rushed" IBM into throwing together a PC: more accurately I would think that the decision to build a PC with "off the shelf parts" was more in keeping the price down to a competative level once they saw the market for a PC. You forget who IBM was back then: A large company that sold very expensive and large computers and terminal, building "from scratch would have priced it out well beyond Apple's offering at the time. IBM just saw a new market that fit nicely into their existing business.

            IBM had put out their system about 4 years after AppleII, so I would hardly call that "rushed". I think that you are giving Apple way too much credit here.

            As for Microsoft owning it's existence to Apple is as speculative as saying that Apple owes it's existence to Microsoft or IBM as they brought computing to the masses better then Apple did.
            John Zern
    • I wrote that Larry Tesler's experience at PARC....

      shaped his contributions to the design of the Mac OS and influenced
      Windows, not that Apple bought or stole the ideas. I'd be hard-pressed to find
      anyone who disagrees with that idea, so I think you're correcting a non-issue.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
    • GUI Influences

      While Xerox PARC provided the seminal influence over all window based GUIs, the
      more more immediate influence on OS X's Aqua graphical interface is NextSTEP and
      Adobe's Display PostScript. I believe there was also a PostScript based display that
      Sun developed and I think it preceded NextStep's, but I couldn't recall the name or
      verify this with a quick Googling. I think Microsoft, besides adopting the pdf to
      printer, pdf to screen approach of Sun, NextSTEP, and OS X, also has added some
      application->xml->window elements bindings which can be traced to xml theory
      101 and, as for implementations, fop, LaTex, and Mozilla's XUL.
    • Anyone want to try a web based version of OS X ?

      I woke up this morning and checked my email . I noticed a very interesting story at UNEASYSILENCE in the e-mail , I followed this link . To my surprise , their she was , OS X . Seems as OS X is making new inroads nowadays . I'm really impressed . This is truly amazing ,,,
    • Amen

      Well put and well articulated.

      Design is for the user and that is why Mac systems have always been superior in
      design than Windows. But Windows had to make it look like it was more user-
      friendly from a customizatoin point of view. But the endless contextual menu crap in
      MS always just irritated and confused. You often have to click twice in Windows to
      get the same thing done in one click in Apple OS software.
    • Your memory is a bit selective

      You're dead wrong thinking that neither OS evolved from the Xerox Parc work. And you also forgot that Apple was sued by Xerox for the exact same reason that Apple sued Microsoft. And please double check what I say, but I'm pretty sure that the suit against Microsoft was actually dismissed because of the contract Microsoft had signed with Apple. Apple didn't technically lose because there was never a trial. And because of the ruling in this case, the case brought against Apple by Xerox for stealing their work was also dismissed because of the precedent set in the Apple vs. Microsoft case.

      Next, your other thought that neither particulary evolved from Xerox Parc work, that is wrong too. It was out of the Xerox Parc work that windowing was developed in the first place. Read your history a little before you comment. In fact, they experimented with different windowing before they settled on what we have now. When they first started, windows could overlap. Then they decided to not let windows overlap. Then they went back to windows overlapping. Drop down menus are another prime example.

      So, go back and check your notes, and try to get it right next time.
    • Sorry, must disagree...

      Having used and supported Xerox' Star network system, I was amazed by how much Apple "borrowed" from them. From the basic "WIMP" (windows, icons, mouse, pointer) user interface to the overall look-and-feel, the two were uncannily similar. The reason that Microsoft prevailed in their lawsuit was that Xerox actually sued Apple over the theft once Apple sued Microsoft, and once Xerox won, Apple had to settle with Microsoft. I remember being amused at the time.

      If you knew how much Microsoft pours into functionality testing, you would be astounded. The reason their apps and OS work the way they do is because that is the way the vast majority of people actually work in the real world. I credit this truth for their current near-monopoly in the business space almost as much as their rapacious anti-competitive business practices.

      Don't assume designers are superior to programmers in creating a usable interface. While trying to put additional user IDs on my son's Mac (he's studying graphic arts), I finally just opened a terminal session and added the IDs at the OS level, because I couldn't figure out OS-X's bizarre and convoluted front end to the simple and straight-forward BSD user interface. Designers make things pretty, programmers make them real.