Does OS X Shine Brighter Than Vista?

It's wrong to make the differences between Mac OS X and Windows Vista into a horserace -- each OS is most challenged by its own history, limitations, and possibilities.

January 20, 2007

14 Min Read
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Does Apple's OS X operating system really shine in comparison with Microsoft's Vista?

That was the headline on a recent article. OS X Shines In Comparison to Vista compares the Vista GUI to OS X and concludes that ". . . as much of an improvement as Vista is over XP, its main competitor, Mac OS X, still stacks up really well — and even tops Vista in several important areas."

It is part of a flood of articles and reviews that has grown as Vista finally approaches its January 29th ship-to-consumers date. It shares with many of them a blind-men-and-the-elephant quality: Seize upon one aspect of Vista or another, and draw conclusions about the whole based on the part they can see and understand.

The piece compares and contrasts the two OSes in several areas, including their development histories, the consistency of their UIs (which seems to mean both the UI changes that create a learning curve for each new version, and the ease of use and intuitiveness of the OS), and their relative security.

There is a lot the piece doesn't cover. To begin with, operating systems are hardware-specific, so they must support the hardware well or performance will suffer. Second, clean code is important: OS kernel bugs can make application developers' lives miserable, there's a definite upside to being the least buggy OS. Vista is certainly vulnerable to criticism of its tortured development history, and other reviewers have faulted the finished product for lacking features that were dropped along the way, like the WinFS file architecture. And you can't not comment on the prelaunch marketing hype, which may be a better, more successful product than the operating system it's selling.Reviewing The UI
You'd think Apple, with its complete control of both its hardware and its user interface, would be able to create a far more coherent user environment than Microsoft's OS, which at least in theory has to run a widely divergent variety of hardware. But that just does not seem to be the case.

Granted, the Windows UI is far from perfect — no OS that forces you to click on a button labeled "Start" to stop your computer can claim the moral high ground here. But OS X is not without its flaws and foibles.

What's up with that single mouse button, for instance? Multiple buttons and local menus are a demonstrable ease-of-use improvement. The Mac's Finder UI that separates program controls from the window that the program is running in is has always seemed awkward. And is an unlabeled icon shaped like an apple really any more intuitive than a button labeled "Start"?(Actually, we're about to learn the answer to that last question. Vista finally does away with the "Start" button and replaces it with an unlabeled icon of the Vista window/flag.)

Learning The OS Language
The point is this: a UI is something you learn, just like a language — and just like a language, some of it is structured, clear, and consistent, and some of it is simply learned by rote repetition. The "OS X Shines" piece makes much of a supposed lack of clarity and consistency in Vista, for example, and offers as example a comparison of the number of mouse clicks it takes to discover the network address being used by your computer — three for the Mac, six for the PC. Actually, a fluent speaker of Windows can do it in three steps, too:

  1. Click on the Vista icon

  2. Type "cmd" in the search box and click on the entry for "cmd.exe" that's highlighted in the results list, or just hit Return

  3. At the command line, type "ipconfig" and hit Return.

But surely that doesn't indicate any weakness or superiority in either OS beyond a primitiveness common to both of them. Why should we ever need to know or care what IP address our computer is using? The fact that OS X users can discover it in three clicks may simply be the sad result of needing to know it more often than Windows users.

There are other examples. The "OS X Shines" piece makes a case that it is more difficult to identify the active window in Vista than in OS X., citing as evidence the "back" button in the upper left corner of the Internet Explorer screen that looks active even when it isn't the front window. That might be a problem for Mac users who have learned to look at the upper left corner of a window to see whether it is active, but for Windows users the indicators are different. Up through Windows XP, the title bar is brighter for the active window. In Vista, the title bar is semi-transparent and doesn't change color, so the visual indicator becomes the Close box: it is red in the active window, gray in non-active windows. The difference is far easier to comprehend visually than it is to explain, and in any case it's hardly a failing of either operating system.

A similar argument can be made about consistency. Is Vista any less consistent than OS X because it changes the nomenclature of some of its elements? The "Start" button is one example. Another is the desktop icon that has been labeled "My Computer" since Windows 95, and becomes just "Computer" in Vista.As "OS X Shines" correctly points out, the Apple OS makes fewer UI changes from version to version because it is on a smoother development path. OS X was first released in 2001, and represented the first complete rewrite of the Macintosh OS. In the years since, it has been updated from 10.0 to 10.4.8 — four more-or-less major updates, with a fifth, code-named Leopard, on the way, along with basketful of smaller point fixes.

Windows XP was released the same year, and embodied changes as major as those in OS X. It incorporated the 32-bit NT kernel, and radically reworked the Windows UI. Vista reworks the UI again.

But saying that merely makes a distinction without a difference. It is just as doubtful to say that the obvious UI changes in Vista would convince Windows users to switch to another OS as it is to say that OS X's static look and feel would cause users to abandon it.

In any case, the changes in Vista's UI are relatively minor: Vista resembles its predecessor XP far more than XP resembled Windows 2000, despite all the hype surrounding Vista's new Aero interface. Aero's sleek semi-transparent window borders, redesigned window controls, and widgets like the new Sidebar give Vista a different look, but not a different feel. The controls still work the same. The language the operating system speaks has not changed. It's added some new words, which users will have to pick up in conversation with it, but it is still clearly understandable.

(Aero itself isn't a cause of differences in Vista, but the result of major changes that will manifest themselves over time. The new interface and the tricks it can do, like the spin-the-Rolodex view of open windows, are product result of the way Vista deals with screen graphics through DirectX and the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) which replaced the 15-year-old Graphics Device Interface technology.)When you look beyond the UI, by the way, Windows is undoubtedly the more consistent, compatible OS. Over its history, the Macintosh OS has introduced new versions that were incompatible with old applications — so incompatible that if you wanted to run the old app you had to keep multiple operating systems installed on your Mac. That has never happened with Windows, and Vista continues Microsoft's tradition of excellent software compatibility.

Look Under The Hood
Throughout the development process that led to Vista, Microsoft has been its own worst enemy. It has over-promised and over-publicized, with the result that there has been far too clear a view of the sausage being made. The process of creating an operating system clearly spiraled out of control in the increasingly rigid Microsoft corporate environment. Apple, in comparison, has done a better job of managing its development process — and the expectations of its customers. OS X has been a well-managed evolutionary process; Vista has been a poorly managed attempt at a revolutionary product.

Paradoxically, Vista is actually an evolutionary success as well. It's not the revolutionary OS Microsoft promised, but it has turned out to be a logical extension of Windows in the light of current technologies. While the spectacular failures — like WinFS, which was intended to replace Windows' hierarchical file system with a relational data structure — have dominated the news, many of the core components of Microsoft's OS technology have been quietly and very effectively redesigned. Vista networking, for example, finally implements IPv6, a necessary expansion of the address space that allows for the next generation of networked devices and applications. (OS X has had this for a while — one results of its smoother development process.) WDDM and DirectX graphics technology won't have much relevance until hardware and applications are widely available that actually take advantage of them, but that will happen with time.

And perhaps not too much time, at that: Vista brings far greater changes for developers than for end-users. The Windows programming APIs are being replaced by .NET Framework 3.0, which wraps up four "foundations," or code bases that combine in the creation of applications for Vista:

  • The Windows Presentation Foundation (code-named Avalon) for writing to a user interface API based on the graphics technologies Microsoft has developed for computer gaming, DirectX and WDDM, that support (and require) powerful new graphics hardware;

  • The Windows Communication Foundation (code-named Indigo), a messaging system built on the Web services model;

  • The Windows Workflow Foundation (a technology so boring it lacks even an interesting code name) that, with Indigo, comprise a middleware platform that supports transactional workflows;

  • Windows CardSpace (code-named InfoCard), Microsoft's attempt to bring some kind of order to the chaos of user names and passwords that confronts PC users.

Is It Safe?
More problematic are Microsoft's efforts to make Windows Vista a more secure operating system. Security has never been something Microsoft did well. It has always subordinated practical measures for protecting users of its products against malware to, say, an ideological dedication to the cross-application scripting of Active X controls.With Vista, the company seems not so much to be building in security for users as deniability for itself by explicitly making the user responsible for security wherever it can — and applying a definition of "security" that seems to confuse the safety of its customers' computing environments with its own interests in digital rights management (DRM).

Vista extends the discomfort of Microsoft's existing Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy intrusionware with its Software Protection Platform, which requires even more validation of the software's legality. At the same time, Vista doesn't seem to do much more to protect users' PCs and data from malware attacks than XP. The "OS X Shines" article may be overly strident about whether the new User Account Control (UAC) represents "authentication" or "approval," but it is correct about the result: UAC is certainly annoying.

The UAC feature requires the Vista user to explicitly approve every interaction involving the installation or execution of external code. And it is not smart about it. It makes no distinction between installations that are explicitly initiated by the user from the keyboard and those that might be initiated by a malicious Web site. It simply makes it all the user's responsibility by popping up endless dialog boxes.

This problem is, in a way, an artifact of Windows' history: Windows was created to run on stand-alone PCs long before the Internet was even thought of. As a result, it has always lacked the kind of user account controls that are basic in the Unix world, which has dealt with networks and the threats they represent — and that includes Unix offspring like Linux and OS X. Microsoft had an opportunity with Vista to fix this shortcoming, but it chose not to. Unfortunately, that makes Vista an operating system that shifts the blame rather than actually tackles the problem.

Overall, Vista's efforts at enhancing PC security seem weak and tentative, still bogged down in Microsoft ideology and "not invented here" hubris rather than implementing what's proven to work for users. But this is the first version of Windows that's really paid any attention to security, and Microsoft is famous for getting things right the second time. Vista security will doubtless get better eventually.

Reviewing The Hype
Vista has been a long time coming, and Microsoft has had no choice but to keep stoking the marketing fires through the long winter of its dysfunctional development. As a result, Vista is perhaps the most over-anticipated Windows release ever.In the corporate marketplace, Microsoft has done what it can to push companies into Vista by pushing its other, older products over the cliff. Windows 2000, still widely used on corporate desktops, is now unsupported by its maker, and new versions of Microsoft's most popular applications, Internet Explorer and the Office suite, won't run on it. Windows XP faces a similar planned obsolescence in a very few years.

In the consumer marketplace, Microsoft has sold the applications bundled into Vista — the photo album, the parental controls, the media center and streaming video — rather than the OS itself, as if the eye candy of the Aero interface would help us take better photographs and raise safer children.

Microsoft doesn't just want the world to want Vista: it needs the world to want Vista, to generate the sales and revenues that have made the company so phenomenally successful. In a marketplace where PC sales are flattening out and alternatives to Windows are growing more capable, Microsoft needs a hit and it's selling the eye candy hard to get one.

Ironically, Vista's long-term success is assured by exactly the things Microsoft isn't selling. The reworked internals of the operating system — the graphics, services, and programming APIs — will give Vista a leg up on the competition. Linux, OS X, and every application software developer large and small will have to play catch-up because 90 percent or more of computer hardware will continue to be built to Microsoft specifications. Unless Linux and OS X make major inroads, 90 percent of all corporate desktops will eventually be forced off Windows 2000 and XP and onto Vista. And 90 percent of all consumers will eventually upgrade to Vista when they buy their next PC.On the other hand, Vista's short-term success is anything but assured, and Microsoft may still be able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. If it continues to cling to its vision of DRM and User Account Control, if it continues to behave as if it had a divine right to 90 percent market share, Microsoft will create a situation that makes inroads by other OSes inevitable.

To Each Its Own
It is business decisions like these, not technology, that shape the OS marketplace. OS X and Vista are both capable operating systems with effective user interfaces. But it is Microsoft's business practices, legal and illegal, that have historically driven its dominance of the market. And it is Apple's continuing decision to sell OS X only with its own hardware, not any shortcoming of OS X, which relegates it to a tiny fraction of the OS market. In fact, it is Apple's stunning expertise at hardware design that continues to drive its success, not any superiority in the OS, and certainly not in its UI.

By the same token, Microsoft's dysfunctional development process doesn't make Vista any less successful a product. On a technical level, Vista arguably puts Microsoft in the lead: DirectX, the .Net "foundations," and other new technology make Vista an OS that takes full advantage of the most advanced hardware technologies, and the basis for a new generation of Windows applications.

The competition between the two OSes is far more complex than a simple horserace that's won or lost by minutiae like which operating system makes it easier to distinguish the active window. Even when limited to the context of the UI, the statement that OS X "tops Vista in several important areas" is dubious, and to expand that conclusion to the OS as a whole is faulty logic. Despite Vista's dysfunctional development history and outrageous hype, it is a worthy update to Windows, and on January 29 it will be the world's best-selling operating system for good reasons.

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