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Windows XP Home Edition and Professional: The SuperSite Review

In the good old days, I could write up an article about the Macintosh or its admittedly beautiful OS, and if it contained even the smallest hint of criticism toward the mother ship (Apple Computer in Mac-speak), I could be sure that my inbox would be flooded with vitriolic hate mail from every corner of the Mac community. That's just the way it worked: Groups like the Mac Marines, (then) Guy Kawasaki's EvangeList, and others would send out the word that some poor journalist had had the gall to disagree with all that was holy in their worlds. It was an age where people felt very strongly about such things as the Amiga, OS/2, and yes, the Mac OS.

Those days have largely passed. That's not to say that people don't feel very strongly about the Mac OS: Of course they do, just attend a MacWorld convention (as I do, fairly regularly) or Apple Store opening to see what I mean. But the Mac community, for the most part, has grown up in the past five or six years. I don't know for a fact that the average age of this group has increased during this time period, but I can detect a certain maturity in the lack of hate mail I get when I dare to criticize Apple, the Mac OS, or--gasp--Steve Jobs.

And I do criticize these things, when they deserve it. Just as I criticize Microsoft, Bill Gates, and Windows when they deserve it. I call it being fair. But people assume--understandably--that because I'm a "Windows guy," I'm automatically an idiot, a Microsoft sycophant, a clueless Windows lemming, or all of the above. The truth is, I'm not any of these things (well, I may be in idiot, but my wife's vote doesn't count). In fact, I've been closely following with the Macintosh community since the late 1980's, and I don't actually harbor any misconceptions about Apple Computer, its products, or its leadership. I even own a Macintosh--a 2001 iBook with 384 MB of RAM and a DVD drive--specifically so I can run Mac OS X, and I favorably reviewed a PowerBook G4 (surprised?) for Windows 2000 Magazine earlier this year. I hope to get my hands on a DVD-burning G4 next. You see, I'm actually a big fan.

Paul reviews Windows XP
Anyway, on to the reason you're reading this page. I just reviewed Windows XP, and I do love it. I'm the guy who actually revealed the code-name of this Windows version to the world, and I also was the first to publish the fact that Microsoft was using the XP naming convention a year later. Windows XP, to me, is that perfect combination of gotta-have-it features, a powerful upgrade that will benefit almost all current Windows users. It really does raise the bar.

However, I had the temerity to write the following in my review of this product:

And for the copycat Mac OS X and Linux platforms, where innovation equates to copying the feature set of Windows, the bar has been raised yet again, this time to stupefying heights.

I agree that this was a bit harsh. So a few days after posting the review, I modified it--qualified it, you might say--to the following:

And for competitors such as Mac OS X and Linux, where innovation often has lately equated to simply copying the feature set of Windows, the bar has been raised yet again, this time to stupefying heights.

And I got hate mail. Not lots of it like the old days. But enough of it that I thought I should explain. The Linux half of this is hardly worth bothering with: I've been running at least one Linux distribution since October 1995 (I started with Slackware, BTW, but now run Red Hat 7.1) on a dedicated PC, and if there are any truths in this world, one is that the Linux community is hell-bent on nothing less than whole-heartedly copying Windows, down to the smallest detail, in various desktop environments and applications. So we won't go there. But the Mac OS X part of this bears some explanation.

Me and X
For the record, my first experience with Mac OS X was actually a PC-based OpenStep (4.3?) product that Apple sent to developers years ago (It's honestly hard to remember how long ago this was, but I was still living in an apartment in Phoenix at the time; since then, I've own two houses. Weird). This was back when the successor to the classic Mac OS was still code-named Rhapsody, and before the Yellow Box/Blue Box scheme was contrived. I've looked at various versions of this fascinating product--since then all running on Macs of course, as the PC version was quickly killed--leading up to the retail release of Mac OS X version 10.0 in March 2001.

Anyway, when the product that was to become Mac OS X was initially hatched, Apple was in a tough spot. It's previous OS successor, "Copland," had imploded for a variety of reasons, and the company was stuck with an ancient OS (System 7.x) and no clear upgrade path. Then Apple CEO Gil Amelio quickly turned things around and got Mac OS 8 on the development cycle, and when Steve Jobs took over, Mac OS 9 also added some nice incremental features. Behind the scenes, of course, Rhapsody--then Mac OS X--was ever in the works. It took a long time to release this product. And while that was happening, Microsoft didn't sit still.

Innovation: Microsoft and Apple
The classic view of Microsoft and Apple is that Apple innovates (they do) and Microsoft copies (they did). But today, the roles are somewhat reversed. All modern OSes derive some features from those that have come before, and Windows XP and Mac OS X are no different. But the idea that this innovation/copy relationship is a one-way street is out of date. While Apple was wallowing in the mid-1990's, Microsoft forged on with two important goals: Bring the hundreds of millions of people using Windows 9x to the stable and reliable NT code base, and change the Windows user interface dramatically to one that is task-based.

Microsoft's UI work is really the best example of how this company has innovated. Before Windows 95, users thought about applications: If you wanted to write a letter, you opened Word. If you wanted to crunch numbers, you opened in Excel. In Windows 95, the gestation of a task-based interface was launched with the My Documents paradigm and the notion that documents were more important than the applications that created them. Don't think application, Microsoft seemed to be saying, think about what you want to do.

Over the years, this has been honed through UI experiments (making the file system and Internet browsing identical, for example), focus groups, user testing, and research. What we've come to in Windows XP is a true task-based interface, an important distinction, that still uses a desktop metaphor so that users can get up to speed more quickly. In a task based interface, you don't have to think about documents or applications, you think about completing tasks, about getting something done. And as I've said in my review, this was done very, very well in XP. It makes the system much easier to use.

Before we compare Mac OS X and Windows XP, then, let's step back a bit and see where Apple went with their OS. Mac OS X is gorgeous, with liquid-like screen elements and amazingly clear fonts. It's just a pretty thing to look at. You can't customize it, per se, as you can with XP's UI Themes, but then most people probably wouldn't want to. But Mac OS X is quite definitely a desktop-based OS, which means it offers no real improvements over previous OSes in terms of usability. You get a menu bar, a desktop, a taskbar-like Dock, and icons. It is prettier, but one gets the feeling that it's just different, not better. Users migrating from OS 9 to OS X face a steep learning curve.

Under the covers, of course, Mac OS X does for the Mac community what Windows NT/2000/XP does for Windows: It adds a secure and stable base, with modern OS features. Sadly, to run classic Mac applications, you need to load a painfully slow Classic environment, something Windows users do not need to deal with. But within a few months, there should be a decent enough selection of applications, and eventually the Classic environment will be unneeded. I can't wait.

Mac OS X vs. Windows XP (the short version)
In Windows XP, everything begins, appropriately enough, with the Start button, which launches a new Start Menu. This menu contains just about everything you need to get to work, your most commonly accessed applications, your most recently used documents, and a list of commonly accessed system locations. In Mac OS X, there is no equivalent to this. You are forced to hunt and peck for things. Let's say you want to change the resolution of the screen. How might you accomplish this in OS X? Holding down the mouse button on the desktop does no good. Choosing View from the Finder menu offers no clue. Choosing Finder Preferences lets you change icon sizes, but not the screen resolution. And so on. How about System Preferences? In System Preferences, the Mac equivalent of the Windows Control Panel, we see a set of icons much like that used in versions of Windows circa two years ago. Let's se... hmm.... Is it Displays, General, or Screen Saver?

The approach in XP is different. You could still spend some time wandering around, I suppose, though right-clicking the desktop and choosing Properties would work. But if you choose Control Panel from the Start Menu, you will see categories of options, rather than a slew of icons. One of them says Appearance and Themes, and none of the other categories could possibly be misconstrued as a possible choice. When you click this, you are confronted with tasks. One of them is "Change the screen resolution." Done.

Not convinced it's easier? Well, look to Mac OS X 10.1. Apple has changed the System Preferences dialog so that it's arranged by... categories. Here's how Apple describes it: System Preferences are now arranged logically by use, making it even easier to find the panel you need at a glance. You set your desktop picture from System Preferences in Mac OS X version 10.1, instead of from the Finder?s preferences. It's more logical. But then, Microsoft added that to Windows XP over a year ago.

(There are other examples, but I've cut them for brevity. You'll see why in a bit.)

Does this mean that Apple is ripping off Microsoft? No. But I think it's fair to say that Microsoft has done a lot of work to make PCs easier to use, and some of that stuff is now showing up in the Mac OS. And some of the advances in XP, surely, will end up in future versions of OS X eventually as well. Witness the wonderful Scanner and Camera Wizard in Windows XP: It's equivalent in OS X is not exactly full-featured, and it does nothing to walk you through the process or let you know where the files you just saved reside. The task-based approach really works. And Apple, stuck in the old desktop metaphor, will need to adapt. They will. They know what they're doing.

What Apple does best
I met with Apple Computer this summer and looked over their new products, both hardware and software. MacWorld New York 2001 was a great show, with the new Quick Silver G4s, new iMacs, and the impending releases of Mac OS X 10.1 and iDVD 2. But as I said to Apple at the time, what the company really does well is digital media. They don't just "get" digital media, they take it and run with it in ways that Microsoft can only imagine.

Take digital movie making. Windows XP includes Windows Movie Maker, but it's sort of a joke, capable of acquiring video and performing only the simplest of edits. On the Mac--even the cheapest iMac--you get iMovie 2, a wonderful application that lets you acquire and edit video, yes, but also add numerous visual effects, motion effects, titles, and more. And you can record back to tape. Microsoft likes to talk "end-to-end" solutions, but this is one case where Apple just blows them away. iMovie 2 is unbelievable, and if you're into consumer-level digital movie making, it's the place to be.

But when it comes to DVD movie authoring, Apple takes it past another level to another planet altogether. It's amazing iDVD software, currently available for free with two of its G4 desktop configurations, lets users create DVD movies that can be played on just about any DVD player. And it's super easy to use, with menuing capabilities and other effects. iDVD is a reason to buy a Mac, pure and simple.

Surely, we will see these types of features in Windows eventually. They won't be as easy or inexpensive, perhaps, at first. But the cycle will replay itself again, as it always does.

So what's the point?
All OS products copy from what came before, that's the nature of the game. Windows and the Mac OS both benefit from what's come before. What I was trying to do (in a rather crass way) was to disavow Mac users of a commonly held myth, that innovation is a one-way street. It's not: There is plenty of innovation in Windows, and much of it came directly from Redmond. That's not to say that Apple doesn't innovate, however--as I've said, it's digital media products are in a class by themselves--and that Apple isn't doing its part to move the PC forward. Of course they are.

With this in mind, I'd like to amend that line in the original review a final time to the following:

And for competitors such as Linux, where innovation often has equated to simply copying the feature set of Windows, the bar has been raised yet again, this time to stupefying heights.

Lumping Mac OS X in with Linux was, perhaps, a bit unfair. But make no mistake: I think that the Mac OS has benefited from Windows as much as the reverse, but then that's the nature of evolution. Just remember that innovation is a two-way street.

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