Windows Vista: Better designed than OS X? 10 February, 2007 — Stuart Brown

On design challenges and keeping all the people happy, all of the time

Posted in Opinion, Design
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This week I gained my first experience with Windows Vista. Whilst it wasn't so much of a 'Wow' starting as a mildly impressed 'Hmm', I do believe Windows Vista is a step in the right direction for the Windows operating system. It may be a couple of years late, but we'll forgive Microsoft for that seeing as they eventually made it to market. Whilst functionally, not all that much has changed, Vista has a lot of swish new minor features and visual chrome that do add significantly to the desktop experience.

windows vista screenshot

As you might guess from the headline, I quite liked it. I would go as far to say that Vista is better designed than OS X. A bold statement? Perhaps. You may debate this, but how one approaches a discussion like this largely depends on the semantics and definitions of words such as 'better'- and indeed, it's hard to state one design is 'better' without some context. But bear with me, we'll get to that.

The ongoing struggle between OS X and XP has never been about raw functionality - surely there's no debate that you can do more with a PC? There's several orders of magnitude more software available for Windows platforms, and the same goes for third party hardware - Microsoft's dominant market position means Windows is the most economically sound platform to develop for.

Any Mac enthusiast who argues that 'you can do more on a Mac' is debating semantics - implying that the quality and productivity are the defining factors. This is much more open to debate, as quality is a hard term to describe. I'll stay well clear of the quality/productivity debate in this article - there's for more scope for discussion in that regard.

What we can clarify, then, is that the lack of increase of raw functionality in Vista is a non-issue, assuming that quality and productivity gains can be made. And it's the extra polish and niceties in Windows Vista that do improve on quality, rather than quantity, of the functionality and usability of the OS.

Microsoft has spared no expense in the production of its new OS. Everything is designed. Deliberated over by a no-doubt expansive panel of testers and developers. From the startup sounds engineered by Brian Eno to the gorgeous default wallpapers selected and commissioned very carefully, they've gone for top-brand production all the way. Whilst you could argue that some of the stuff was over-designed (Who really needs Brian Eno to create a startup sound, anyway?), the scope and amount of effort that went into Vista really is incredible.

"Hello, I'm a PC that's designed to look like a Mac"

The Aero glass interface is fresher and feels more modern than the (now somewhat passť) brushed aluminium look of OS X. The soft blur effects of the translucent windows are beautiful, and the tilt/blur/fade of windows closing and minimising is a step beyond OS X's genie effect on minimise. Yes, to some they may be showy - the glossy glass-like effect is overused, and will most likely date very quickly, but the consistency and design standard is kept up through the OS.

This extra visual design is reminiscent of what is contained within OS X - and no doubt there's been some inspiration taken. But if you criticise an OS for not having the same standard of design as OS X, why not take inspiration from that? The usual Windows-is-ugly, Macs-are-beautiful argument is definitely a good reason to take heed from Apple's offering - OSX has very probably been the single largest source of 'inspiration' in web design in the last ten years. Glass effects, wet floor reflections, and most of the whole Web2 experience has derived, in some way or another, from the visual design of OS X.

What Microsoft has done is to have taken this source of inspiration and adapted it for the Windows platform - developing the appearance and functionality to suit their existing userbase. Vista is essentially a combination of Apple inspired visual design based on the functionality and standards of its Windows heritage. The mix works surprisingly well.

You can't please all of the people, all of the time

The principal difficulty for Microsoft has been designing not for a particular type of computer user, but rather for all of them. With 80-90% of desktop market share, you have very little wiggle room to change the fundamentals of your flagship OS. In spite of this, Microsoft have made quite a large number of changes - changes which must have involved an awful lot of user testing. The logistics behind the design processes and testing MS have gone through to design Vista are staggering.

It is because of the difficulty involved in designing an OS for hundreds of millions of people - as opposed to mere millions - that I would argue Vista is better designed than OS X. Apple has it easy as long as it keeps its smaller market share - they can make more sweeping changes (as between OS 9 and OS X) without alienating too many people. They can be bolder in terms of design without having as much to worry about in terms of impact. In short, Apple has it easy - and Windows Vista might have taken 5 years to get there, but the lumbering giant has caught up.

Of course, I have no doubt in my mind that Apple will push the envelope once again with the next major revision of Mac OS. That's part of the ethos behind what they do - it's one of their priorities. Microsoft's priorities are different - they have to cater for larger markets, and even the largest development teams can be stretched doing as such.

So all things considered, I'd assert that Vista is better designed than OS X. OS 11 and beyond will have to push the boundaries again for Apple to keep their design edge - and no doubt the next revision of Windows will be playing catch up. But Apple are designing for a smaller subset, and have far more flexibility in their choices. Microsoft are a victim of their own success, in this regard.

In defense of Windows fanboyism, or the absense of

Before you start thinking of firing off flaming emails, know this: Yes, I use PCs. I'm no Windows fanboy. I'm certainly not sold on the pan-Microsoft dream - I use Linux for the most part in my web development pursuits. I've used more than my fair share of Mac OS in my design experience and education - every major revision of Mac OS back to OS7, way before my first experience with Windows (which was back in 1999).

Indeed, I'm somewhat of an OS agnostic - I can't say I have any major preference within the current crop of systems. Any traces of fanboyism I might have had has been and gone with the fade of AmigaOS - Workbench was my first true multitasking operating system and some aspects are yet to be matched to this day - but sadly the march of technology has left my preferred OS behind.

So why use Windows today, then? Why lambast OS X in favour of Vista? Perhaps the reasons are twofold. Firstly, it's reaction to the negative press and FUD, and secondly because Vista is a well-designed OS, which boasts both modern design features, and the familiarity of Windows of yore.

I'm not suggesting anyone should rush out and upgrade - particularly not if you're happy with whatever you're using at the moment. But please, don't accuse Microsoft of simply cloning the competition - they've got a lot more on their plate, design-wise, than you think.