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Summary:

How much innovation is there in Microsoft’s Windows Vista, due in Q4 2006, and how much of it is borrowed from that company from Cupertino?

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?

Organisation

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…

Reliability
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.

Sharing
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…

Security
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.

Mobile
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?

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  1. I’m all for disseminating information, but let’s try to get it straight. Here’s the actual timeline for ‘widget’-like utilities in operating systems:
    MacOS – 1984- Desktop Accessories (worked around the single program limitation)
    MacOS 8+ – no longer necessary due to multi-launching
    Mac OS X – 2001 – no such feature
    Microsoft – 2000/2001 – research project(s) begin/presented
    Konfabulator – 2002/3 – reinvention of Desktop Accessories as self-contained ‘widgets’
    Konfabulator 2004/5 – moves to Windows
    Mac OS X 10.4 – 2005 – Dashboard
    Konfabulator – 2005 – bought by Yahoo!
    Microsoft – 2005 – public display of Gadgets
    So let’s not just spread FUD around… try for news, not conjecture (all based on public information available via Google or other mechanisms)

  2. You might not like to think so, but this isn’t just conjecture matey. These are quite well evidenced opinions. And this is a blog after all – opinions are what makes blogs interesting. Otherwise they would just be freelance journalists. News is for news sites.

    It is really very interesting to have it made plain just how much microsoft is having to catch apple up. An in-depth article by siracusa or someone about must surface eventually and could be most fascinating…

  3. Well The actual timeline for such gadgets makes no mention of the first Windows widget product, which actually began life on an Amiga platform..

    In 1998 Play Inc. (some former Newtek folks) created something called Gizmos for Windows which was followed on by Gizmos MegaPak.

    These looked JUST LIKE KONFABULATOR and even some of them were Internet enabled. BACK IN 1998.

    All of you Apple people who want to feel unique should realize that gizmos worked fine under windows 95 and 98 and some of their toys included a slideshow/video editor along with calculators, calendards, CDDB stuff.

    So WHO COPIED WHO? Well I surely think that most of you folks here have it ALL WRONG.. Play, Inc. unfortunately died when it’s founder did, but Gizmos is really awesome and honestly, they were the first instance of WIDGETS on the desktop that look like the current crop from Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo! etc..

    So please, with your MacOS centric view of the world, remember not all good technology comes from something Apple related.

    I think the current owners of the Gizmos intellectual property would have a lot of good shot at getting money in a lawsuit with Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo!

    If you look at Gizmos which I have used for YEARS! The concept whole was taken copied and STOLEN!

  4. The Security framework of Mac OS X is NOT A FRONT-END TO SUDO. They’re completely different things — you may disable an admin user from using sudo, but Security windows will still work. The Security framework is also much more granular and complex, and allows for things such as fine-grained permissions and parental controls.

  5. Brian’s list of “widget like” systems misses out two key ones: Borland’s SideKick, which dates back to 1984 (just before the release of the Mac, or just after) and Microsoft’s own ActiveDesktop, which dates back to 1997 and is FAR more like Widgets/Gadgets in terms of coding.

  6. To Donald Burnett,

    I’m not sure why you’re pointing to something from 1998 and claim that Apple stole the concept. Considering Apple’s desk accessories dates back to 1984, you’re point is moot.

    If you’re trying to make a point about implementation, then again, your point is moot. Take Konfabulator and Dashboard for example. Very similar in concept, but also very different in implementation. No doubt, MS’s gadgets will be different still.

    Steve

  7. “MacOS 8+ – no longer necessary due to multi-launching”

    Minor nit, but since you added the snitty “Look it up!” line…

    Try System 7+ (ca. 1991). System 7 made MultiFinder the standard and removed the need for Desk Accessories, changing them to “Apple menu items.” You could still use Desk Accessories–which were essentially funky device drivers–but they would launch within their own application.

    “Mac OS X – 2001 – no such feature”

    Arguable.

    Mac OS X put lots of information in the dock. Part of the idea was to have these mini-applets in the dock and you could conveniently click on one. Meanwhile, you could vaguely see what was going on with them by just looking down in your dock.

    Didn’t really work out well, though. It was fine for things like a date/time widget, but it was pretty lame for anything else. Also, the Dock didn’t really allow you to put the information where it might be convenient for you to see it because launched applications, minimized windows, etc. would shift it over.

  8. Don,

    As was made quite clear in Brian’s post, Apple’s first effort (which, ripple and swoosh effects excepted, remarkably resembles Dashboard) dates back to 1984. For clarity, that’s some 14 years before Gizmos, of which, I must confess, I had not heard.

    I also feel something of a need to point out that your “MacOS-centric” jibe is resented. I have extensive experience in Microsoft operating systems, ranging from DOS 3.3 to 6.22 (and, I suppose, 7.0) and Windows 3.0 to XP and various distributions of Linux. My view is not MacOS-centric; rather, I am writing from an at least quasi-neutral viewpoint and observing what are matters of fact. There is certainly no doubt that Apple’s Dashboard has popularised the widget concept like no previous widget technology, and Microsoft has obviously seen it as an idea good enough to be worthy of conclusion.

    But feel free to go on thinking that Play Inc. were the pioneers.

  9. Apple photocopied BeOS with Spotlight and Smart Folders.

  10. Who cares the origination of all this crap?

    The point is, Apple decided to go mainstream (and dare I say, do things RIGHT finally) with many of these features, and now look who’s trying to follow suit (2 years later….).

    Not to mention that awesome ‘new’ brushed metal UI. hah!

    Oh, and system-wide indexing for Instant search results. Oh wait. That couldn’t make it into the Vista release on schedule. (Is Vista still ‘on schedule’?)

    And yes, STILL 2 years AFTER Tiger came out with all this stuff – except for Brushed metal which is 3+ years aged…

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