One Thing Mac OS X Should Learn from Windows

- 2007.01.08 - Tip Jar

It's easy for Mac users to poke fun at Windows - the interface started life as an attempt to borrow from the Mac operating system, and paste windows, menus, and the like over top of the text-oriented, DOS-based PC. 1985's Windows 1.0 was ugly and awkward, and while Windows has evolved and become less ugly over the years, so has the Mac; Windows remains awkward by comparison.

Windows 1.0
Windows 1.0

Recently, InformationWeek compared Microsoft's spanking new Windows Vista with the current (and soon to be replaced) Mac OS X 10.4 (see Mac OS X Shines In Comparison With Windows Vista). Author John C. Welch concludes that while Vista is better than Windows XP (and that may be all that matters for millions of Windows users), "Vista reeks of committee and design by massive consensus, while OS X shines from an intense focus on doing things in a simple, clear fashion and design for the user, not the programmer."

While I agree with Welch overall, there are individual user interface areas where Windows is better than the Mac OS X. Here's a little experiment I carried out - see if you agree with my conclusion.

To do it, you need access to an OS X Mac, a Windows system, and some way to read a folder on both of them. I used a USB flash drive (a.k.a. key drive, memory stick, thumb drive, etc. A a side issue: It would be nice for the user and manufacturer communities to agree on a single name for these handy devices). You could also use a CD-R disc or a shared network folder.

I created a folder on the flash drive and called it Test 1. Inside the folder, I copied 3 files and renamed them '1", "2", and "3". I created a second folder named Test 2, and put in 3 files renamed "4", "5", and "6".

I then copied the Test 2 folder to my Mac's desktop and renamed it "Test 1". I then dragged the original Test 1 folder from the flash drive to the Desktop. A warning popped up:

Mac OS X copy warning

I clicked Replace... the result - files "4", "5", and "6" vanished, leaving files "1", "2", and "3" in their place. The erased files do not appear in the Trash; they're just gone.

Inside the Test 1 folder on the Mac

I did the same thing with Windows. I used a copy of the new Windows Vista which I have installed on my Mac using a beta of the not-yet-released VMWare Fusion for Intel Macs - but you could use any version of Windows from Windows 95 up - your dialogue boxes would vary with your Windows version, but the results will be the same.

As on the Mac, when I tried to copy the Test 1 folder onto a desktop that already had a Test 1 folder, a warning message popped up. But where the Mac's warning talked about replacing one folder with the other, the Windows warning talked about merging folders. It noted that if any of the contents had the same names, they would be replaced.

Windows merge warning
Windows merge folders warning

As promised, it did just that. When it was done, all six files - three from each of the original folders - were in the single folder on the desktop, with no lost content.

All six files show up in the merged Windows folder

(In fact, there were hidden files with the same name in each folder - Vista gave me a dialogue box asking me what do to, with options to keep only the old one, replace it with the new one, or rename one to eliminate the conflict).

...merging files of different names is much more sensible than the Mac's habit of making folder content disappear without a trace.

Die-hard Mac zealots will no doubt point out that the Windows Vista dialogue boxes are big and clumsy, with pictures that really don't add any information, and much more wordy than the Mac equivalents. But as far as I'm concerned, in this situation, merging files of different names is much more sensible than the Mac's habit of making folder content disappear without a trace.

This is not just a trivial example: I've lost files this way on my Mac.

It's easy to point out examples where Microsoft has copied Apple user interface innovations (often badly). New York Times columnist David Pogue has posted a hilarious video titled "V for Vista" comparing Vista and OS X, for instance. But Apple has also imitated a number of interface ideas that started life in Windows. Much of Mac OS 8 consisted of bringing features to the Mac (such as desktop wallpaper) that were popularized in Windows 95, for example.

With Apple's Mac OS X 10.5 due later this year, maybe the Mac will finally gain Windows' ability to merge folders rather than continue to overwrite files. LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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