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The Philosophy of Mac OS vs. Windows

By Scott Teresi

The choice of a computer platform is mainly a matter of personal preference, familiarity, and ease of access to technical support. Macs and PC's have similar capabilities, but there are certain inherent benefits of one platform over the other. Presented here are two fundamental benefits of Macintosh over Microsoft.

  1. Microsoft’s troubling business philosophy vs. Apple’s commendable interest in open standards and the creative fields.

  2. Windows’ ignorance of human interface design guidelines.

I’ll explain these two points in more detail and try to use widely-cited facts rather than just my own experience to back things up.

  1. Apple’s energies as a business are very much focused on the creative fields, which is one of its biggest markets. Many of the innovations Apple has introduced which were later copied by the rest of the industry, even to this day, came in the form of better support for sound, music, and video. Apple invented Quicktime, a multimedia format which, when installed on Mac or Windows, allowed the user to play all standard audio and video formats seemlessly. (This was back around the mid-90’s, before Windows Media Player or RealPlayer; Apple led the pack in adding audio and video support to those rickety old machines, before they all came with CD-ROM drives!) This turned the Mac into a multimedia device years before Windows. Apple continues to spend its energy making video and audio recording an integral part of the operating system, going so far as to build the basic components of those functions into the operating system, so your programs work better with minimal configuration.

    Microsoft was practically founded on a philosophy which has often been summarized by the phrase “embrace and extend.” From the beginning, the company’s reason for being appears to be total domination of all possible uses for a computer and hence to make the most possible money. Microsoft often completely copies others’ ideas and turns them into its own technology, incompatible with the original implementation, and then uses its monopoly power to enforce the Microsoft “standard” which will only work well with other Microsoft products and stifle competition. Microsoft is hoping to make lots of money by cooperating with big record companies and movie companies. It has been crippling Windows Media Player to prevent certain files it plays from being able to be copied. Whether or not this is good or bad for the customer, one unsettling result of this is the user being restricted with whatever he wants to do with the files on his own computer. Smaller companies like Apple tend to embrace more open standards such as Quicktime, which has absolutely no restrictions on all the media it plays. You can edit it, resave it, and copy it all you want (e.g. MP3’s, videos of commercials, etc.).

    You’ve probably already heard about other bothersome controls Microsoft hopes to add to Windows, and it’s difficult for users to resist them because of the monopoly situation. For instance, Microsoft loves its Passport service because it can track users’ behavior online across web sites, and it hounds you to sign up for it when you buy a new copy of Windows. Microsoft is already starting a subscription model for Windows (for businesses only, for the time being), which requires them to pay a yearly fee just to keep using software which at one time they only had to pay for once! And the newest version of Windows restricts itself to being installed on only one machine, causing trouble if you upgrade your system (making it look like a new computer) and then need to reinstall Windows, or if you buy a new machine to replace your old one. Most companies wouldn’t have the gall to attempt measures like these because customers would refuse to buy the product... but this is Microsoft! It can be said that no company truly has its customers’ interests at heart, but Bill Gates takes it all one step further.

  2. The Mac OS 9 user interface generally was designed better than Microsoft Windows. (The study at has found that Mac OS X is also more thoughtfully designed.) Apple took a lesson from the human-computer interaction research being done at a Xerox laboratory in Palo Alto in the early 80’s and ran with it. Below are some representative examples of how more time was spent in the design of Apple’s user interface than Microsoft’s.

    1. Clickable areas near the edges of the screen. In Windows, the menu bar is never at the very top of the screen, so it’s not as easy to hit menu items (File, Edit, View, Help, etc.). By taking advantage of the known value in user interface design of screen edges and putting menus right against the top edge, Apple effectively made the clickable hot spot for each menu “infinitely tall.” You can’t overshoot the menus. After days and days of usage, this adds up to slightly less strain on the user. Microsoft makes the same mistake with the Taskbar at the bottom of the screen, which is all the more egregious because it only had to extend the buttons one or two more pixels to make them infinitely tall.

    2. Menus should be as flat as possible, with submenus used only when absolutely necessary. Selecting an item from a flat menu is easy, because you only have to be accurate in one direction—vertically. You can be sloppy horizontally, and you won’t fall off the menu. But when you select a sub-topic, you have to change from moving vertically, to going out horizontally through a relatively small channel. This change in direction, and being forced to thread the cursor through a small target, makes using hierarchical menus decrease productivity, even while it maximizes menu (screen) real-estate, and can improve logical grouping. As a result, hierarchical menus should only be used for seldom used functions. The most important menu item in Windows, the “Programs” item under the Start Menu, is... a submenu. Here is where all the programs on the computer are packed, and many of them in sub-sub-submenus. Not a well-architected solution.

      Another major issue in relation to menus which Apple handled very well and Microsoft almost totally ignored, is “hysteresis,” which is a “lag of effect,” or a delay before an action. It’s an important part of menus and controls, even though most users are unaware of it. I’ll have to show you how this works in person, unless you feel like checking out the extremely informative diagram on the top of this page (along with the paragraph of explanation underneath). If you try moving through submenus on different platforms, you’ll find you are frustratingly required to hit the exact entrance of the submenu much more accurately in Windows than on the Mac OS, thanks to Windows’ ignorant lack of adequate hysteresis.

    3. The Windows user interface is designed very inconsistently. Here are concrete examples. I’ve encountered some of these inconsistencies on a daily basis, and I’m left scratching my head in disbelief at Microsoft’s ignorance of human-computer guidelines. These issues may seem like nitpicking, but that is what interface design is all about!

      For example, not all files are treated the same during dragging. Drag a document file from one folder to another and the file will be moved. Drag an executable file from one folder, and the file... won’t be moved. Instead, you get a shortcut to the file in the second folder. (To delete the file at some later time, you’ll need to delete both the original file and the shortcut.) Shortcuts are sometimes treated inconsistently compared with normal files. If you put a folder in the Start Menu (if you can figure out how), you’ll get a submenu showing the contents of the folder. If you put a shortcut to a folder in the Start Menu, you won’t see anything inside the folder. Shortcuts should be treated the same as the original file as much as possible.

    4. Keyboard shortcuts should be assigned carefully. In Windows, many keyboard shortcuts involve function keys which have the double inconvenience of having no conceptual relation to their function, and also being physically hard to reach and easy to miss. A good user interface should almost never use function keys, and they aren’t used much on the Mac. Apple assigned shortcuts such as ctrl-x, ctrl-v, ctrl-c, ctrl-s, and ctrl-q (cut, copy, paste, save, quit) so they would be operated with the left hand and keep the right hand free to use the mouse. The lack of thought given to intelligent keyboard shortcuts in Windows is surprising. To close a window, Microsoft’s shortcut is alt-F4 (or ctrl-F4), a needlessly inconvenient stretch for one hand for such an often-used option, and one which has no conceptual relationship to “closing a window” (it’s command-w on a Mac). There is no easy shortcut for creating a new folder in Windows. You can’t minimize Windows easily from the keyboard. All over, Windows menus are missing keyboard shortcuts (which sometimes exist but often aren’t listed!)—look at the File menu in Notepad or in an Explorer window. The list goes on. Well-designed keyboard shortcuts speed work considerably for power users.

      This page evaluates some more aspects of what makes a good user interface (boring concepts like button design, grouping relationships, use of color and contrast, conceptual meaning, consistency, prioritization, efficient mousing, screen real estate usage, etc.). A good interface makes computer functions easier to learn, easier to remember, promotes productivity, reduces error, reduces fatigue, etc., etc.

This isn't to say that Windows doesn’t have better ways of accomplishing some things than the Mac does, or even that the Mac is easier for everyone all the time. Windows is of course much easier if you’ve learned how it works and know what to expect. However, while certainly not a holy grail, the Mac interface was in fact designed to follow better human interface guidelines and accomplish the same tasks with less mouse movement, a shorter learning curve, less fatigue, etc., especially when used heavily. My experience using both platforms for years generally agrees with this. All interfaces have a learning curve, but once you sit down and get through it from days and days of usage, you’ll start to use the interface at the full extent with which it was designed.

Mac OS 9 is not a perfect user interface. Check out Ask Tog for thorough examimations of where Apple got lazy. Designing an interface is a painstaking process of trade-offs and requires great attention to minute detail. But not only did Apple’s interface engineers design a stellar interface about as perfect as anyone could at the time (mid 80’s), but they were also given some authority over the business and marketing folks who may have wanted more bells and whistles. Microsoft has had trouble reaching that compromise between its human interface researchers, software designers, business visionaries, and marketing personnel, and for all its enormous funding, while Microsoft did come up with some worthy innovations (you may appreciate the Taskbar), the end result was a poorer interface on the whole than what had come before it.

More recently, though, Apple has replaced its old, aging, but well-designed interface (Mac OS 7/8/9) with a shiny new and relatively untested one (Mac OS X). It’s not totally different, but there are many major changes. So I haven’t been as vocal about Apple as I might be otherwise. Without having used OS X personally for more than a few days, I don’t know for sure if it follows user interface guidelines better than Windows or not. There is evidence that it hasn’t been as thoroughly user-tested as Mac OS 9 was. However, as I’ve described, Apple has a long history of sweating these details, so I’m pretty sure many OS X issues will be overcome in the future, while many user interface blunders still persist in Windows XP to this day.

Many people have more experience using Windows than the Mac OS, whether from their workplace, their parents, or their friends. An unfamiliar operating system is intimidating and frustrating. However, this unfamiliarty can be rather easily overcome given a few months of using a Mac regularly. I would hope that people will give more weight to the differing foundation and philosophy of the two platforms as they make a decision on a platform.

Written December 2002


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