The Desktop Critic: Stealing for a Better Tomorrow

Sooner or later, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates will be hauled into that big principal's office in the sky. "You've been bad boys," Saint Peter will boom. "Haven't you ever heard that thou shalt not steal look-and-feel?" Steve will shuffle his feet and point accusingly at Bill. "He started it!"

He'll be right: for years, Microsoft Windows engineers have shamelessly ripped off Apple's best design ideas. But after lawsuits proved to be futile, Apple began helping itself to a few features of its own. Mac OS 8.5, for example, could almost be Windows 98's better-looking brother: the Favorites menu, draggable window edges, proportional scroll boxes, the little arrow "badge" on an alias icon, program switching via 1-tab, daylight saving time self-correction, and the Network Browser all debuted in Windows.

Now Apple and Microsoft are both gearing up for massive OS overhauls: Mac OS X and Windows 2000. In the interest of better computing for all, I wholeheartedly applaud their dueling intellectual-property raids. Here's what's worth pilfering from each company's rival OS . . . that hasn't already been stolen.


In Windows, you can press Windows key-M to jump to the desktop. All windows in all programs are instantly hidden, giving you uncluttered access to your icons, disks, and the Recycle Bin. Wouldn't that be nice?

Furthermore, in Windows, you can assign a keystroke to any alias; you don't have to buy QuicKeys just to get program launching from the keyboard.

The Calculator, the Mac's handy but antediluvian desk accessory, hasn't changed since Reagan was president. The Windows calculator has bigger buttons, memory functions, a clear-error key, and a complete HP scientific-calculator mode.

The Windows Start menu is an obvious rip-off of our Apple menu–and now it's payback time. Apple should add a Programs menu item, like the one in the Start menu, to the Apple menu. It lists every program on your hard drive, which saves everyone, novices and experts alike, infinite window burrowing.

In Windows, little underlines tell you what keystrokes activate menu commands, check boxes, and radio buttons. Apple has always resisted giving us such total keyboard control. But now that large numbers of Mac buyers are refugees from Windows, it's time to reconsider. (If Apple's worried about cluttering up the screen, it should do what Claris used to do: make the little underlines appear only when you're pressing the command key.)


Windows desperately needs a title-bar doodad, like the Mac's zoom box, that resizes windows so they're exactly large enough to contain the icons in them.

Windows PCs don't come with a system-software start-up CD-ROM like every Mac does; older models can't even boot from a CD. If your Windows folder gets corrupted, get ready for three hours on the phone with a tech-support rep.

Despite the fact that Windows 98 is supposed to be able to handle file names up to 255 characters long, the vast majority of files provided by Microsoft itself still have stupid names like F_WINIT.DLL. For heaven's sake, Microsoft: you've got the space, now give self-explanatory names to your own files, as Apple does. Or come up with an equivalent to the Mac's Extensions Manager, to help us figure out what all this lint is.

AppleScript. Enough said.

Hard though it may be to believe, when you quit a Windows program, some of its windows may remain open, stranded on your screen–a complication of Windows' window-centric approach. The Mac's application orientation works better.

Finally, despite all its recent talk about simplicity, Microsoft still believes that what makes a better Windows is more features. The Microsoft credo, "If you upgrade it, they will come," only aggravates the worst aspects of Windows–bloat and complexity. On the other hand, it's been years since Apple foisted useless, porcine features on us (remember OpenDoc and PowerTalk?). These days, the Mac's designers consider new OS features much more carefully, weighing how each will affect the whole. When it comes to enhancing system software, Microsoft is still years away from stealing–or even noticing–Apple's crown jewel: knowing when to stop.

September 1999 page: 184

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