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PC: I'm A Mac Too

A Microsoft employee acknowledges what everyone already knew -- Windows 7 is inspired by, if not a copy of, Mac OS X. Predictions of the end of the world prove to be exaggerated.

A Microsoft employee acknowledges what everyone already knew -- Windows 7 is inspired by, if not a copy of, Mac OS X. Predictions of the end of the world prove to be exaggerated.It all started with what seemed like an innocent comment. Microsoft partner group manager Simon Aldous said, in an interview with PCR magazine, "One of the things that people say an awful lot about the Apple Mac is that the OS is fantastic, that it's very graphical and easy to use. What we've tried to do with Windows 7 -- whether it's traditional format or in a touch format -- is create a Mac look and feel in terms of graphics."

Aldous hit a nerve, to put it mildly. Mac fans were quick with the Nelson Muntz "Hah-ha!" told-you-sos. And why shouldn't they be? While everyone knows Apple didn't create the point-and-click graphical interface, they refined it, and Microsoft has followed the path of refinement in most important ways over the years.

Meawhile, PC partisans were equally quick with the "Oh no they didn't," trying to draw the line between copying and adapting. And Microsoft was quick to slap down poor Mr. Aldous with a post on the Windows Blog: "Unfortunately this came from a Microsoft employee who was not involved in any aspect of designing Windows 7. I hate to say this about one of our own, but his comments were inaccurate and uninformed." And the company sent a statement to PCR saying that "Simon was incorrect in describing Windows 7 in this way and subsequent headlines claiming that the Mac OS inspired Windows 7 are totally inaccurate."

How much Windows 7 borrows from Mac OS X has been a subject of discussion for at least a year now, and the current incident generated a lot of heat but also shed some light on the issues. First, we've learned that Microsoft is awfully defensive about being perceived as a copycat, seemingly without realizing that defensiveness just gives weight to your opponent's argument. How hard would it have been to say something like, "Apple makes a great product that has inspired our designers. But there are significant differences between their product and ours, and we think ours is better"? That sounds a lot more grown-up and truthful than the "OS X? What's that?" response they did come up with.

Second, the flap provides an opportunity to think about the ways that Windows might in fact be better than OS X. Don't act so surprised -- inspiration and copying work in both directions. For example, back when I used OS 8 I had a utility that enabled command-Tab switching between applications, because I'd used Alt-Tab in Windows and liked it. That functionality is built into OS X now, but Windows had it first.

I recently ran across a thought-provoking post from last December on Paul Thurott's SuperSite for Windows, written soon after Windows 7 started to be demoed in public. Paul writes about the difference between "easy" and "simple" -- about how simplifying interface elements doesn't always make things easier. One example he gives is the lack of a straightforward Back button on the iPhone and iPod Touch. He writes, "Every one of my friends who tried the device almost immediately asked, 'where's the back button?'" I've looked for it myself.

Another example is the Dock, which combines an application launcher with an application switcher, with minimal cues as to why each icon is there. It's simple, in that it's a single row of icons, but it's not necessarily easy -- who has never launched an application without meaning to by clicking in the wrong place?

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The all-or-nothing attitude is counterproductive. Windows users should hope Window 7 copies OS X in some respects, and Mac users should hope the Apple interface wallahs are paying attention to innovations in Windows 7. For example, dragging a window to one side of the screen in Windows 7 resizes it to fill half the screen, making it easy to compare documents side-by-side. I won't complain if Apple "copies" that feature.

Smart businesses copy the best features of their competitors. SMBs try to adopt enterprises' long-term planning strategies, and enterprises try to copy SMBs' ability to respond quickly to changing conditions. Microsoft would be foolish not to copy OS X's best features (and for the most part, Microsoft isn't foolish), and vice versa. I continue to maintain that Macs are the best platform choice for small and midsize businesses, but the reasons have more to do with lowered support costs and ease of networking than with whether the Dock is prettier than the Taskbar.

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