OS X vs. Vista

Apple website (http://www.apple.com/getamac/macosx.html) proudly says “While Vista does its best to copy some features that have been in Mac OS X for years, Mac OS X offers an experience that is simply years ahead.” (Note that this page has been removed from Apple website since I wrote this article. But the text is available elsewhere.) And they base this observation on the articles written by WSJ’s Mossberg, and NYT’s Pogue.

Enough has already been said about Windows copying Mac. With the fear of sounding cliché, I will try to explain why that may not be the actual scenario. Indeed, in some cases the reality may be totally reverse.

I am a big fan of Windows (for myself), and also of Mac (for my Mom). I do think Mac is a better choice for people who do not know, and do not need to know, how a computer works. I am talking about people who have never heard of a motherboard, or might confuse it with CPU (I know of people who do). People who think how fast a computer is can be measured by how fast it can browse the internet (or internets, for some people). Mac is better for them because, as Apple mentions very accurately, it just works – out of the box, first time, every time.

That’s a good thing. So why would I say that I am a fan of Windows for myself?

Two main reasons. First reason: Visual Studio. XCode, although a really great tool, can not come anywhere near Visual Studio. Visual Studio is THE best software development environment, period. And Microsoft is making it even better with every release. There are many reasons behind my claim of VS being better than XCode, but let me just mention a few here. VS has multiple languages support, it has the greatest debugger, and it has the best intellisense. So there.

The other reason is a little geekier. It involves tinkering with the innards of a computer. Adding a memory module is OK with a Mac, but anything beyond that, even upgrading a hard drive, may be a serious business depending on which Mac model you are dealing with. You want to upgrade the graphics card? For a Mac? Forgetaboutit. Of course these are much easier with Windows machines, even laptops. Macs greatest advantage, and disadvantage, is that the hardware and software are made by the same company. While they work together extremely well, any changes may become a serious issue (and I am not talking only about driver issues), because the software was maade with a specific hardware in mind. Windows on the other hand is built on the assumption that any and every kind of hardware will be connected to it, both internally and externally. Sure, there will be times when Winodws will hiccup with a newly connected hardware, but on the whole hardware upgrade is much easier in Windows than in Mac.

But let’s get back to my original point. Is Windows copying features from Mac?

The main features that are compared between Vista and Mac OS X are:

  1. Desktop Search and Spotlight
  2. Sidebar and Dashboard
  3. Flip 3D and Exposé
  4. Aero and Aqua
  5. Security features
  6. Other programs (calendar, photo gallery, movie maker, etc. etc.)

Let’s take them up one by one and see how the claim, that Windows Vista copied them from Mac OS X, holds out.

Desktop Search vs. Spotlight

Mac OS X implemented it earlier than Vista. But who envisioned it earlier? Long before Spotlight came to Mac, back when Microsoft was still talking in terms of “Longhorn” rather than “Vista”, they showed a fast desktop search in Longhorn. It was shown as an feature of WinFS (which was later scrapped from Vista). However, because of various reasons, Vista got delayed again and again. Apple, of course, cashed in on the opportunity and implemented a feature called “Spotlight” in OS X (which was eerily similar to what Microsoft has demonstrated) and released it to market. Vista was released much later, and although it did not have WinFS, it did include Desktop Search. Does it mean Vista copied it from Mac? You decide.

However, there is more to the story. Fast desktop search was demonstrated by Microsoft as a feature of WinFS, but I don’t believe it was claimed to be a new feature of Windows. Because it was not. There were (and indeed there still are, including Google Desktop Search) a number of third party softwares that were providing the fast search feature. Microsoft merely wanted to integrate it with the operating system. So the point of copying this feature from Mac to Vista is moot. If anything, both Mac and Windows copied it from some other providers. Indeed, Apple implemented it as a core OS feature earlier than Microsoft, but Apple’s implementation has its flaws. To make it fast Apple depends too much on individual files, and programs often have to create individual files for the Spotlight engine to index them rather than having all the data in a database (like e-mail clients do). But, to Apple’s credit, they indeed implemented an extremely fast solution, which makes the Vista desktop search look positively sluggish in comparison.

Sidebar vs. Dashboard

I really don’t understand how Apple claims Sidebar is copied from Dashboard, when Dashboard is itself a carbon copy of Konfabulator (which, some say, is in turn very similar to Apple’s Desk Accessories, but Desk Accessories were not supported in OS X). Having small interactive panels on the desktop is a very generic idea, and even Active Desktop in Windows supported parts of web pages to be shown on the desktop. In my personal opinion, it is not anything so great or so original that requires copying.

Flip 3D and Exposé

Over the years, computer hardware becomes more advanced, and operating systems try to utilize that extra power. This is how software works. It’s a no brainer. The Windowing subsystem in XP was relying on old hardware and graphics card, and since Microsoft does not make the hardware for its OS, XP could not assume everybody will have a graphics card with enough processing power and memory to use a hardware accelerated shell. OS X had that advantage because Apple created the hardware. It knew exactly what hardware it was going to run on, and exactly how much graphical power it could assume every system to have. The Quartz display engine was based on this assumption, and Exposé is a direct benefit of that. When Vista came about, Microsoft somewhat safely assumed that all machines will have DirectX 9.0 capable graphics cards, and Vista took advantage of that. Flip 3D is the corresponding result. Of course, if the system does not support it, Vista will turn Aero off, and with it Flip 3D goes bye bye.

So, I think it was obvious that both Apple and Microsoft would come out with some way of looking at all the open windows at the same time using hardware acceleration, and this should include live preview of the running windows. Apple came out with Exposé, Microsoft came out with Flip 3D. Again, the advantage to Apple was that they came out with it earlier than Microsoft. You have to give it to Apple. But claiming that Flip 3D was a rip off of Exposé? That’s a cheap claim.

Aero vs. Aqua

This is a direct continuation of the previous point. Both Aero and Aqua use hardware acceleration for drawing the desktop windows, and accordingly can display eye catching effects and animations. This is an obvious benefit of using hardware acceleration, and apart from the fact that Apple came out with Aqua before Microsoft conceived Aero, there should not be any claim of copying. They are different enough not to be confused with each other.

An interesting historical incident comes to mind. Apple released window based GUI before Microsoft, and had patented the fact that they could have overlapping windows. Due to this, the first couple of version of Windows could not have overlapping windows. But of course, that restriction could not be held for long. A window based GUI (be it OS X, Windows, X-Windows, BeOS, OS/2) uses overlapping windows, because GUI tries to mimic real world objects (e.g. a desktop, with papers, folders etc. scattered on it), and in real world things overlap each other. Does this mean everybody copied from Apple? That would be an interesting claim to make!

Security Features

Windows, till XP, had very poor security, to put it mildly. Most users logged on as administrators, and all programs running under that user enjoyed full and unlimited access to the system. All worms and viruses exploited that privilege, often corrupting system files happily without any obstruction from the OS. Most other operating systems, especially Unix, worked in different security model. Here, the programs running under a user account, even an administrative user, did not have enough privilege to modify certain files in the system. When a user required to modify those files, the OS asked the user for permission. OS X (which is Unix based) and Linux utilize the same security model.

Microsoft understood the problem, but tried to circumvent it rather than fix it till XP (because otherwise many drivers and programs, which assume unlimited access, would not work). In Vista, for the first time, they used a security model very similar to Unix. Here, programs running under users (even administrative users) enjoy a lesser privilege than required to modify system files. Very similar to Unix, but not copied from OS X. If anything, copied from Unix.

Vista is the first version of Windows using this security model. And therefore has not perfected it yet (even OS X was not perfect at its first iteration, even though it was based on the good old Unix system). The drawback is the frequent popup message requesting user permissions for executing certain programs. Unix (including OS X) and Linux both do the same thing, but to a much lesser extent than Vista. It’s a little annoying for users accustomed to Windows doing everything it was asked for without complaining, but sometimes a little annoyance is a good thing. It shows that you are protected. And the number of viruses that can infect Vista, without a virus scanner installed, is much less than it was for XP. There are some major differences in the way this feature works in Vista compared to how it works in Unix or Linux in general. Firstly, you can turn it off in Vista. Not a good idea, but I believe Microsoft was forced to allow users to turn it off just to make sure XP trained users are not discouraged by this annoyance. Secondly, if you are already logged in as an administrator, Vista does not ask for password. It merely asks you to allow an action. In Unix/Linux you are always asked for a password. Again, I believe Microsoft did this to reduce the annoyance of users.

Other programs (calendar, photo gallery, movie maker, etc. etc.)

Calendar is one place where the influence of OS X is pretty obvious in Vista. Mainly because there are not too many other programs to compare it with; and OS X, as always, implemented a near perfect solution for the job at hand. I do not agree with photo gallery or movie maker being copied into Vista. They are quite different, and other programs (like the excellent Picasa from Google) have very similar features. Simply put, if they were to be copied, there are better role models to copy from than OS X. Microsoft provided decent solutions which reminded users of some other programs, but still kept their individuality.

Interestingly, OS X’ Time Machine, which is vary similar to Vista’s shadow copy, is not mentioned in these comparisons that claim of Vista copying OS X. Vista was quicker to implement shadow copy than OS X was to implement Time Machine, and Vista’s solution has a major advantage over Time Machine.

For shadow copy you don’t need extra hardware, it works on the current hard drive, and is on by default without setting up anything. Time machine does not work without an external hard drive, and needs to be set up by the user. Time Machine’s claim to fame is the over the top UI, but shadow copy is a much more practical solution.

That’s the run down through the list. What I need to stress here is that these are merely my observations, and there may be cases where I am hopelessly wrong.

What surprises me is that OS X is an excellent piece of software, has its own strengths, and that it does not need to point finger at others and accuse them of copying to make itself look good but it still continues to do so. As I have mentioned early in this article, OS X and Windows can be the perfect solution in different scenarios. In my opinion:

  • Windows is great for developers and geeks.
  • OS X is great for artists and computer novices.

Of course, it is not possible to isolate these groups absolutely. And it does not mean each group could not gain from each OS. There are developers on OS X (otherwise how would the programs for OS X be written?), and artists working on Windows (paint.net). There are geeks who swear by OS X (tuaw.com writers/readers) and novices working on Windows (nuff said).

The point of this writing is to show a very particular thing – that Apple’s claim of Windows stealing its features is simply not accurate. Many people (including Mossberg and Pogue) somehow subscribe to this idea. But it’s wrong.

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