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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Microsoft Windows has traditionally played catch-up with the Mac OS, favoring growth through partnerships rather than innovation. Generally the features swiped are shallow copies, duplicating the look instead of the functionality. For a long time, Apple had an incredible HCI group that insured usability and, more importantly, utility for the operating system. That group is long gone, but its legacy remains.

Mac OS X, befitting a complete rewriting and reconception of the Mac OS, was a revolution that leapfrogged the then-current version of Windows—2000—with stunning graphics and interesting new features on a UNIX-based foundation. Microsoft, true to form, hastily developed Windows XP. It copies the eye candy looks of Mac OS X, but went for a cartoonishness to evince its user-friendliness instead of OS X’s crisp, professionally designed aquafication.

Recent releases of Mac OS X have only increased the chasm between the two operating systems. Panther made interoperation easier than ever and introduced one of the most innovative functions since the window, Exposé. Microsoft chose to start its round through its frequent tactic of bluster and FUD with the announcement of Longhorn in 2002. It was a calculated move to forestall the growing buzz around Mac OS X and shift some focus back its way.

Short on details, Longhorn was trumpeted as the operating system of the future and it was coming in 2004. Schedules slid back to late 2004, early 2005, and now sometime in 2006. Glimpses were given and feature lists were dispersed. Then those feature lists were cropped and the system requirements were upgraded.

Now we’ve got some new screenshots at which to gawk. What do we see but shallow copies of Mac OS X features? The most egregious of which is indubitably the Exposé clone.

Looking at it, I can’t help but be disgusted. It’s an abomination. Exposé was amazing because it let you see small views of the open windows (or just the frontmost application’s windows) and easily cycle through them to find the one you wanted. Longhorn’s implementation looks like ass. It obscures the contents of all but the top window, takes over the otherwise useful ALT-TAB functionality, and won’t scale well at all. Can you imagine if you had thirty windows open, what kind of a stack would that look like? Why would the operating system expend the processing necessary to re-orient largely two-dimensional objects—windows—in a purely arbitrary position? Presumably, the window size is a reflection of the window’s 2D size; what would happen if all the windows were maximized? Even more content loss.

The current ALT-TAB functionality is perfectly adequate. In fact, it’s one of the things that Apple never got right until Panther. This replacement reeks of “because we can” development. Unfortunately, the processing power necessary to make them “can” puts this operating system out of the reach of most people.

The truly sad thing is that, by the time Longhorn debuts in 2006-7-8, Mac OS X will have had three to five more major iterations and Windows will have caught up to Mac OS X as it existed in 2003. But at least you Windows users will have an opportunity to get out of the Windows-related computer upgrade cycle; I strongly encourage you to consider the Macs that aren’t even in prototype stages at present.