Microsoft Admits, Then Denies, Copying Mac OS X

It boggles the mind, it really does. Microsoft tries so hard but for each step forward, it seems to take three steps back. Windows 7, Redmond’s answer to the train-wreck that was Vista (subscription required), has been out for just a matter of weeks and has managed to garner mostly positive reviews. But Microsoft can’t help itself. It has to do something silly, and, true to form, it has.

It seems Microsoft’s middle management can’t decide whether or not it ripped-off Mac OS X when it was redesigning its flagship product. This is the result of a bewildering comment from Microsoft Partner Group Manager Simon Aldous in an interview this week with PCR. He’s neither a developer nor a designer, and he didn’t work on Windows 7. But Aldous didn’t let that stop him saying this about Microsoft’s latest OS:

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 […] is create a Mac look and feel in terms of graphics.

So. Aldous just made it clear; Windows 7 copies borrows its design from the Mac. Only, no, it doesn’t. Not according to a retort yesterday from Windows Communications Manager, Brandon LeBlanc. Writing on The Windows Blog, LeBlanc said:

An inaccurate quote has been floating around the Internet today about the design origins of Windows 7 and whether its look and feel was “borrowed” from Mac OS X. 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.

The tech press is going bonkers about it, of course, but let’s be honest — when it comes to operating systems, the days when these two giants outright-copied one another and it mattered are far behind us. The common elements of an OS user interface are driven largely by user need/behavior. High resolution color displays and the ubiquity of the mouse and keyboard combo would have led to these similarities irrespective of the company behind them. Put simply, thirty-odd years of OS evolution would result inevitably in functional and aesthetic similarities.

What Are They Looking At?

When people say that Windows 7 “looks like” Mac OS X, I don’t understand exactly what it is they’re looking at.

Mac OS X’s Dock and Windows 7’s Taskbar are similar in function, but not design. The desktop and windows are, again, similar in function — but they don’t look the same.

Windows 7 has gone overboard with transparencies everywhere, to the detriment of ease of use. Mac OS X, on the other hand, introduced transparencies many years ago and has consistently dialled them down in successive OS updates.

Windows was long-criticized for its drab, gunship grey interface. XP and Vista moved gradually away from grey, and now Windows 7’s UI is an explosion of green and blue (or red or pink or purple or whatever godawful theme you choose). Mac OS X, on the other hand, remains a stately, elegant… gunship grey. Not at all like Windows 7. I suspect people mistake Microsoft’s bold-yet-vomit-enducingly-colorful design of Windows 7 with the elegance of Mac OS X.

I’m aware that these observations are subjective. My opinions are just that — my opinions. You might agree with me that it’s wrong to say Windows 7 and Mac OS X look “the same.” You might think I’m desperately uninformed and waste no time telling me as much. (In fact, the predictable result of any article comparing Windows with Mac OS X is the vitriol from commenters apparently unaware they’re reading TheAppleBlog.)

In any case, consider this; here we have two Microsoft execs, one in product sales, one in product design & development. The former sees how customers perceive the Mac to be a superior product, and tries to exploit that perception by ‘connecting’ Windows 7 to it. (“The Mac is great, so by copying it, Windows is great, too.” etc.) The latter has spent years working hard on this new OS and responds with understandable indignation to the suggestion his team copied anything from the competition.

Either way, it’s embarrassing. At a time when they ought to be extolling the wonders and miracles an upgrade to Windows 7 may bring, they’re instead drawing attention to their biggest rival.

I can’t help but imagine an email winging its way through Apple’s Marketing department this week, its subject line reading, “With competition like this, who needs an ad campaign?”

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