Apple Archive

Does Mac OS and Windows Convergence Threaten Innovation?

The More They Change, the More They Become the Same

- 2003.06.20

Many people stay with one computer from day to day, and when faced with a different operating system, they tend to be somewhat afraid of it, since its "new and different." There are others out there who don't know the difference between Windows, Mac OS, or any other operating system, and assume that all computers work the same way.

These days they are close to being right. I remember when Mac OS 8.5 came out - with its application switcher and extensive use of contextual menus - remarking that "the Mac OS and Windows are starting to get very similar." Of course, that was before Windows XP and Mac OS X, which share not only the little duck user icon but one of the desktop pictures as well.

It wasn't always that way. When I started using computers, PCs were still being sold with DOS, and schools all used Apple IIes. We had a Mac Plus - and if you knew how to use that, great. You could successfully use a Mac 128K and a 512K, but nothing else.

You knew DOS? Fantastic, but you still had to learn the Mac OS and the Apple II's ProDOS system.

Windows 3.0 tried to close the gap between the Mac OS and Microsoft's hard-to-use (but very fast, once you learned it) DOS. It contained icons, but you still needed to know about directories and which drive A, B, C, and D were.

Microsoft understood that the best way to sell its software was to try to sell what was already being sold successfully. Menus worked in the same way as on the Mac, and there were windows for documents and Program Manager groups. The Windows 3.x control panel was set up in a similar way to System 7.

Windows 95 brought things even closer. The desktop was now completely visible (you didn't have the Program Manager blocking it), and icons could be placed on the desktop - just like the Mac. The "My Documents" folder allowed users to sort through their files as they would on a Mac.

Windows 98 improved on that, bringing the Internet Explorer browser into the file exploring tool and allowing users to browse files just as they would browse the Internet. The start menu was somewhat like the Apple menu; you could access all main system tasks and applications from it.

The great innovation with Windows 95 was the taskbar, and I have yet to see anything quite as good. It was great because you could see what application was running by both its icon and by the words.

Apple must have been quite jealous, because it "borrowed" the taskbar idea for the Mac OS 8.5 application switcher. Sure, it was vertical - but simply do a shift-option-click on the resize box and you've got something that looks quite a bit like the taskbar. I often use it while I'm at my G3 running OS 9.

Apple also borrowed something else from Windows 98 for Mac OS X: the "file explorer" idea, with back, forward, and toolbar buttons. Of course, Microsoft responded by making theirs in Windows XP look more like the one in Mac OS X (doesn't it sound like two kids trying to copy each other's drawings?).

Then of course there's the new Windows XP interface. Looks quite a bit like Mac OS X. I guess the taskbar innovation really wore Microsoft's software developers out, so they decided to borrow a few more ideas from Apple. Even the names - when you think about it, Aqua (water) and Luna (the moon) are complete opposites. Microsoft apparently just had to use something in nature, and since water was taken, they figured they'd use that dry sphere in space.

If the Mac OS and Windows keep getting more and more similar, how long before they end up being the same thing? If both start getting too similar - sure, it will be easy for the consumer to use any computer, but will innovation be the casualty?

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