“Redmond, Start Your Photocopiers”

When Tiger was introduced at WWDC 2004, Apple was keen to style itself as a master of innovation. Mac OS X 10.4 was to be the Mac’s best operating system yet, with a plethora of ingenious new additions to make the computing experience easier, more efficient and more fun. And there was a not so subtle poke at Microsoft to go with it – “Redmond”, the banners cried. “Start your photocopiers.”

A year and quarter on, and Longhorn has become Vista, a moniker whose merits were more than adequately discussed when it was first announced, and Microsoft has since started to elucidate on what will actually make it into “the biggest release since Windows 95”. This is quite a change from the earlier sporadic reports of yet another feature that wasn’t going to make it into Longhorn. But how much of it is new, original work?

Look and Feel
As should be clear from the Windows Vista web site (especially this page), Microsoft is placing great emphasis on look and feel in the new OS, presumably given that Apple has demonstrated that this kind of thing really does matter to user, and it appears that Microsoft has at least been “inspired” by Apple in this area.

Consider the new display model, where all the work of slinging text and buttons and windows onto the screen is handled by the graphics card. Vista will have this, and Apple has been working towards it in Mac OS X since Quartz Extreme in Jaguar (10.2). Tiger has introduced many refinements, and whilst Apple’s system is still wholly bitmap based (and thus resistant to easy scaling), it is here now, and it works well on very average hardware.

A fully vector-based display model is a nice idea, make no mistake about it (and you could call it innovative). It may well be less radical by Q4 2006, but it does seem that it will leave users of older machines out in the cold. What of the millions of office PCs out there? Are they all going to need top-of-the-range ATI or nVIDIA cards just to run Word?

The Vista site makes reference to improved window minimising, to name but one feature, which from the description sounds distinctly like the Genie effect:

When minimized, a window now clearly minimizes to the spot on the taskbar where it resides, making it easier to locate later.

Flip 3D, mentioned below that, appears to be a take on Exposé, whose simplicity has attracted many users, typically the less experienced type who find shortcut keys (like Command+Tab) hard to remember. It will be interesting to see how this manifests itself in the final version. Thumbnailing for Alt+Tab switching too seems to have its roots in Apple’s Exposé.

Oh, and finally for this bit, Microsoft Gadgets. Ho hum.

Dashboard, anyone?


Windows Vista introduces a new organizational concept called a Virtual Folder, which is simply a saved search that is instantly run when you open the folder.

New organizational concept?” Who to? By Longhorn’s release, Tiger users will have enjoyed this functionality for over a year and a half. It will be interesting to see if this is implemented at operating system level, like, arguably, it should have been in Tiger (so that search results could be accessed from the Terminal, etc.). It seems more likely that Microsoft will adopt the same approach as Apple – after all, why innovate when you can just copy? It’s less effort. This seems all the more likely given Microsoft’s lack of emphasis on the command line.*

(*This is not without evident irony, given that back in 1984, Apple was championing an all-GUI computer that had no scary command line and that was all Microsoft then produced. Now, given Mac OS X’s UNIX underpinnings, Apple has made much of the command line (including, for example, doing things like making Spotlight accessible, etc. Windows’ command line pales in comparison.)

Internet Explorer is evidently seeing some additions too – tabbed browsing and RSS feed access, two never-before-seen features which will put Microsoft ahead of the game. Fair enough, Apple cannot claim credit for tabbed browsing, which has streamlined the web browsing experience for so many people, but Safari in Tiger is leading the way with RSS integration. In Windows, it’s still a year off.

And Outlook Express features decent search. Just like Mail 2.0. It’s not really too valid to gloat too much about this one, as it was at least partly Microsoft’s announced intention to make search a big part of Vista that prompted Apple to incorporate it into TIger. But Apple did it nicely, and they did it sooner. Much sooner. This in itself is a fascinating example of just how slow and cumbersome Microsoft has become…

The Reliability page introduces some interesting features which do actually appear to show genuine innovation, although the cynic in me cannot help but observe that if Windows hadn’t been quite such a leaky bucket in the past, it wouldn’t need these features so badly now.

The most interesting feature here is what Microsoft is currently dubbing Metro Docs, which is a clear assault on Adobe’s PDF format and a response to Print dialogue box PDF creation in Mac OS X. The site states:

Microsoft is freely licensing Metro, which means that the format can be created and consumed on many different platforms and classes of devices, ensuring that Metro documents will integrate well.

It will be interesting to see just how free the licence is. Will we see Metro readers for Linux or the Mac? It is clear that by using XML, Microsoft is hoping to woo users away from the proprietary PDF format, but how much success it will have remains to be seen. PDFs are now incredibly well entrenched, and reader software is available for a great many platforms.

But geeks do love XML…

Microsoft is calling it User Account Protection, and it is something that Mac OS X has always had – a frontend to the UNIX command sudo (a tool to run a specified programme as administrator), being the prompt which asks you for your password when, say, you try to install a piece of software. This same GUI subsequently appeared in some of the more friendly Linux distributions, and so Windows is finally scheduled to get it in 2006.

It’s not entirely clear from the blurb, but it is possible that Windows PCs might finally get a decent sleep function. Various modes of power saving have been around on PCs for years, and indeed Windows 98 supported suspending your computer, seemingly in a manner quite akin to the sleep feature on Macs. But I use “supported” there in a rather loose sense, in that it never worked very reliably, and a machine once put to sleep was generally impossible to wake up.

Wireless networking is also discussed. Will it suck less than the now-finally-at-least-mediocre support in Windows XP SP2?

Hardware Requirements
In this sphere, Microsoft is in a league of its own. The hardware requirements for Vista are nothing short of stunning, especially the suggestion that 256MB of video RAM will be a happy medium. And Apple’s efforts in this regard are interesting – it is certainly safe to say that although early versions of Mac OS X were not the most sprightly of environments, much has been done to speed up the overall experience. Tiger, for example, runs very acceptably on my old iMac G3, but I am quite sure that subsequent service packs to Windows Vista will do nothing to increase Vista’s speed. No, new processors need to be sold. Intel have bills to pay, after all.

There is, then, some stuff here of interest. It isn’t all bad. But it’s certainly fair to say that Microsoft seems to be playing catchup, and catchup with something that is already new. Who knows what Apple will announce at next year’s WWDC, but if the innovation at Apple is anything like it normally is, there’ll be a whole lot more catching up to do before Vista even ships. With Apple’s public profile very much on the increase, comparisons will be inevitable. What will Microsoft do then?