Re: The Old Copycat Debate, Revived

November 19th, 2009

Apple / Mac, MS / Windows, Personal Rants

(Repost from, my personal website.)

This is a response to an article in Win7 News, which you can read in its entirety here. The author, Deb Shinder, is a Windows/Microsoft fan. I am decidedly more in the Apple camp. In her article, Shinder talks about the popular perception that Microsoft copied aspects of OS X’s user interface for Windows 7, and then goes on to explain how various examples of said copying aren’t really good examples. After this, she then goes on to a larger thesis: that it doesn’t matter if Windows copies OS X or if Linux copies OS X or Windows, because they all descended from the first GUI developed by Xerox. I don’t really care about that last thesis; I don’t have any qualms with it. I would just like to address some of the more ridiculous points in the article.

Point 1: “I’m writing this on a Windows 7 computer, and I have a Mac running Snow Leopard sitting right across the room. Do they look alike? Not really. Are there similarities? Sure – they both have taskbars (which Apple calls a dock), they both have desktop icons, they both have “pretty” interfaces. The Windows 7 taskbar is far more functional, though: if I hover over a dock icon on the Mac, I get nothing but a pop-up of the application’s or folder’s name. If I hover over a taskbar icon in Win7, I get a preview of every instance of that app that’s open.”

I have to dispute that the Windows 7 taskbar is more functional. This is just my thing, but I hate having to take two steps to get what I want when one would do just fine.1 If I have IE open with multiple tabs and I click on its icon in the taskbar, I get presented with all the open tabs. No, clicking on IE doesn’t switch me to my last open tab, it asks me which tab I’d like to switch to, which gets really, really annoying after awhile. The main function of the taskbar should be to, um, switch tasks, not ask me which task I’d like to switch to, which requires more thought and time.

Point 2: “Some say the ability to pin apps to the taskbar in Windows 7 is a case of copying the dock. But we have been able to put apps on the taskbar since Windows 95, in the form of the Quick Launch bar. There’s nothing new about that.”

Oh, sure, Windows users2 have been able to pin apps to the taskbar for a long time with Quick Launch, but with Windows 7, the two jobs of task managing and app launching have been combined in the new taskbar. How is there “nothing new” about that?

Point 3: “How about desktop gadgets? Did Microsoft copy Mac’s widgets? Not really. Leaving aside the fact that gadgets were introduced in Vista, not Windows 7, they don’t work the same way as the Mac widgets. Although both are small applications that provide information (clocks, weather, stock market info, etc.), there’s a fundamental difference in the way they’re implemented. On the Mac, the widgets reside on the “Dashboard.” When you have the Dashboard displayed, you can’t do anything with your other applications. When you click on an application window, the Dashboard disappears. I can’t find a way to be able to work on a document and see my widgets at the same time, as I can so easily do with Windows gadgets.”

Who said gadgets were introduced with Windows 7? No one. Spotty rhetoric, this. It’s a totally moot point anyway, as Konfabulator (now known as Yahoo! Widgets) was the first widget application, dating back to 2003.

Point 4: “What else? The Start button? The Mac puts its Apple button on a whole different taskbar, across the top of the screen. It contains some of the same things as the Windows Start menu: recent items, the options to sleep, restart, shutdown or log off. But it’s not nearly as flexible; the Windows Start menu displays your favorite applications in the top left section, most recently used apps in the bottom left section, and links to commonly accessed folders and tools (documents, pictures, music, downloads, the computer, the network, devices and printers, Control Panel) in the right section. Windows 7 also places the Search box here, whereas the Mac’s search tool is at the far right of the top taskbar.”

First, that thing at the top of the Mac’s screen? Yeah, that’s a menubar, not a taskbar, you know, because a menubar has, like, menus and stuff, whereas a taskbar has, like, tasks. Second, WTF? Why are we even talking about the Start Menu? I’ve never once heard anyone say that Microsoft copied the Start Menu from Apple. Only Microsoft could come up with something as unpolished and overcomplicated as the Start Menu. And third, Spotlight pwns Windows Desktop Search.

Point 5: “As I’ve mentioned before, Apple has “borrowed” or “adapted” just as many ideas from Windows as the other way around. They’re just now getting around to releasing a 64 bit desktop OS, they’ve “copied” Exchange support from Windows, Leopard introduced “stacks” for combining items in the dock (emulating the “groups” that did the same, years before, in Windows). Apple’s Quick Look for viewing documents in the Finder without opening them seemed a whole lot like Vista’s Explorer preview pane, which came first. I could go on, but here’s my point: just because two operating systems have a similar look, or even have similar features, that doesn’t mean that one is a “copy” of the other. And if Apple folks think it’s such an outrage for Microsoft’s operating systems to adopt features that are similar to their own, why don’t they feel the same sort of outrage about all the new graphical interfaces for Linux that look so much like Mac and Windows? Heck, if Microsoft were really out to “copy” OS X, wouldn’t they have ripped off my very favorite thing about the Mac interface: the genie effect?”

What are you smoking? How did Apple copy Windows by making OS X 64-bit? Was 64-bit technology invented by Microsoft? I don’t think so. Exchange support? How is Apple supposed to have exchange support before Microsoft does? Exchange is a Microsoft product! You’re comparing Stacks to task grouping? Seriously? And don’t even get me started on the differences between Quick Look and that useless chunk of space called the Preview Pane.

Listen, all of these points? They don’t matter, because the fundamental difference between Apple and Microsoft is that Apple innovates. When’s the last time Microsoft’s done anything radically different? Windows is still using technologies from twenty years ago. Apple completely rebuilt Mac OS from the ground up only 9 years ago. Just look at the Zune: why did Microsoft want a piece of the PMP market? Because of Apple’s iPod. What is the Zune HD if not a less functional iPod Touch? The Zune HD even has a message on its side that says, “hello from seattle” (sic). Sound familiar? What about Windows Mobile? When’s the last time Microsoft released an update for Windows Mobile that wasn’t just a shoddy paint job? ‘Sbeen awhile, it has.

So, I think the output of our innovation is great. We have a culture of self-improvement. I know we can continue to improve. There is no issue. But at the same time, our absolute level of output is fantastic.

” Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

  1. I find myself doing two steps to accomplish something simple in Windows a lot. For instance, minimizing with the keyboard: in OS X, it’s just Cmd+M; in Windows, it’s Alt+Space and then N.
  2. Notice how Shinder uses “we” to refer to Windows users. Very reminiscent of the Borg.
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Alex is a blogger. You can find his personal blog here. You can also find him on Twitter.

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6 Responses to “Re: The Old Copycat Debate, Revived”

  1. swampf0etus

    All I can say on this is…

    Hi, I’m Steve Jobs, and Windows 7 was my idea!

  2. Kevin

    I suppose the debate again boils down to an opinion. While one side may argue their feelings for their chosen OS, the other side will inevitably do the same.

    But I do have a final point to add on the regard of application quality. The increased user base of Windows would increase it’s exposure to coders and software designers but by that it would also increase it’s exposure to lackluster coders and software designers.
    While OSX has a lower user base and much ‘prettier’ programs, an increased user base would indefinitely increase the amount of less desirable programs out there for OSX.

    But really most of the programs I find myself using applicaitions that have versions for both Operating Systems. (Firefox, VLC, AIM, iTunes, Office, etc.) But as I blend OSX and Windows on my laptop, Im finding Windows Only more and more of a problem.

  3. Alex

    Sorry for the delay; I’ve been really busy (AP Calc and all).

    Well, of course they’re all opinions; however, while some might like things different, there is a science to user interface design, and I think the new taskbar behavior is inherently less usable, especially when it’s inconsistent. It should only show windows of an application, not the tabs within windows. Imagine if I had eight tabs open in IE and then I open another window. Now, the taskbar preview is showing both windows and tabs, which is just confusing. Trying to find the last window you were working with becomes a nightmare.

    As for who innovated it, I think there are some basic user interface paradigms that you can’t blame companies for copying, like the button. How would you graphically represent a button without actually using one? It would be next to impossible.

    And re your control argument, there are more applications available on Windows, however, the quality of those applications is (in my experience) inferior.

  4. Kevin

    Well first point is really a preference or opinion and its difficult to play Chess with Checker pieces if I may use that analogy.

    The second point, while not necessarily “innovation” on Microsoft’s part, neither would I say it is Apple’s. It is a logical step in reducing multiple processes to a single icon. Seeing as the keyboard ninja is a dying breed, it would be logical that if you only have one manipulate object and you are given two buttons to use, one button opens the program, it seems that the logical function for the right mouse button to display other instances of the process.
    An analogy that comes to mind is a cabinet. Personally, I open all cabinets with my left so that I may grab cans and such with my right.
    Im not sure if its just how my housing has been built but cabinets in my house all have their hinges on the left side of the cabinet door. Thus if I use my right hand it would block access to the goodies within. (Little off topic but you get my point.)

    Again, the complication level of the Start menu is an opinion again. I feel that the Start Menu is more of a boss key than a menu. A sort of God mode or sudo or root for Windows. I enjoy that one menu has access for everything. Again its really a preference. Maybe having Windows for so long has grown on me but I have run Linux and OSX and Windows at one point or another. (I also remember at one point in my life I was daring enough to run XP, Vista, OSX, and Ubuntu Linux all under one PC.)

    By control I more of meant that the vastness of applications and programs available on the internet allows me to give a Windows PC almost any functionality I wish. Though recently in light of the increasing market share of OSX, I’m finding more and more programs that have an OSX counterpart so both points are moot.

    I do agree that Linux and OSX are inherently more secure than Windows having looked into the subject a few years back, I am going to argue that a user’s experience level again comes into question. While Linux users are geniuses in their fields, a large number of OSX users are not. The paranoia of Windows makes users feel forced to run loads upon loads of Windows and security programs. Its been said before that a well set up Windows system is more secure than a setup done by an inexperienced computer user.

  5. Alex

    Thanks for the reply, Kevin! I appreciate when people take the time to debate.

    Your first point is that the new taskbar gives people more choice. The fact remains that the primary function of the taskbar is to switch tasks, not to ask which tab I’d like to switch to. That doesn’t mean this behavior is completely useless; it just shouldn’t be the default. It could be assigned to control-click, hold-click, or hover; any one would be better than the default.

    Your second point is that Microsoft innovated on the Dock with the new taskbar behavior. However, if you right-click on an item in the Dock, you get a list of open windows. Microsoft making this the default behavior is not innovation.

    Yeah, I don’t use Widgets either.

    To search for a specific file type in Spotlight, you can use “kind:”, so if I wanted to search for all files with .doc extensions, I’d use “kind:.doc”. I’ve always thought the Start Menu was ridiculously overcomplicated. I mean, one menu for search, applications, favorites, and shortcuts?

    As for the control argument, no one’s saying that OS X offers more control over your system. It doesn’t. I’m willing to accept that because I like OS X, and I think it’s the best OS out there right now. However, if you want a truly higher level of control over your OS, I’d try out Linux.

    On a tangent note, OS X and Linux are inherently more secure than Windows because of the way Unix systems handle permissions, and also because the vast majority of viruses are made for Windows. You can read more about that here.


  6. Kevin

    I agree with a few of your points Alex but I do have to say that you’re kind of looking at Windows from a biased viewpoint.

    Your first point deals with how it seems 7 is adding a second step for something that only requires one step. It appears to me that this is added for giving the user more options and more control over their computer and what they wish to do with it. While I do agree that during an intense session of late night computing it can get annoying but it does add flexibility to the computer. Instead of only offering choice at one point it offers choice in all points.

    Second point: You state that Apple innovates, but with it’s taskbar, Windows 7 innovates on Apple’s innovation. I do agree that the Windows 7 taskbar does take some ideas from the OSX Dock, the dock doesn’t combine the menubar and the taskbar.

    Point 3 is irrelevant as you’ve already stated. I don’t use gadgets or the dashboard on either system. Seems superfluous.

    Point 4 is close to pointless but Spotlight does not pwn Windows Search. I can’t isolate files by extension in Spotlight or at least do not know how to do so and Windows Search again integrates with the Start Menu. To me it gives the Start Menu a sort of Boss Key kind of feel.

    In Point 5 I wholeheartedly agree with you.

    Overall I do feel that Mac OSX and Windows 7 should be treated as seperate entities. But I do feel that while many see Apple as the innovator and the freelancer kind of computer, I feel that Macs are more in a sense a kind of smoke to those that are not fluent in computer usage.

    I recently Hackintoshed my Inspirion 1525 using the tutorials Richard posted here, and I’m finding myself more and more driven to return to Windows. I do agree that OSX does have it’s strong points but Windows offers me a higher level of control over my computer than OSX does.

    Why sudo get me a sandwich when I can just get me a sandwich?