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Mac OS X vs. Windows: Does Soul Matter?

By Jack M. Germain MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 16, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Ask a Mac OS X fan or a Windows fan what the difference is between the two operating systems, and the short answer might be something like, "The difference is, the one I use doesn't stink." That response may underscore the emotional pull an operating system has with a particular sort of computer user, but it is not very helpful for getting at the heart of the matter. The long answer involves understanding the soul of each OS.

Mac OS X vs. Windows: Does Soul Matter?

Mac OS X is gaining favor among a growing number computer users. What is it that makes up the real difference between OS X and Windows? The long answer goes well beyond the Dock, the Start Button, or other obvious surface features and appearance details that any user can easily see at first glance.

"Apple is second to none in user experience," Bill Gribbons told MacNewsWorld. Gribbons is director of the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley University and senior consultant to the Bentley University Design and Usability Center. "They turned it into an art form. Apple's approach to product design is what distinguishes them from Microsoft. Microsoft is not always focused on technology. It is not always a good experience for users and is not always easy to learn. It does not always fit the users' needs."

Close Birth

Certainly, both Microsoft's and Apple's operating systems have changed dramatically over the years.

The two systems share a common lineage, of sorts. Windows was released in 1985 and was at least inspired (if not copied) from the earliest Mac OS, which Microsoft had access to as a Mac software developer. Apple actually sued Microsoft in the 1980s for "borrowing" their ideas, according to Edward Shepard, marketing manager of Apple sales professional for Small Dog Electronics.

"Forward 25 years, and it can be argued that Microsoft borrowed many ideas for Vista's look and feel from Mac OS X. Likewise, Apple has also borrowed ideas from Windows over the years. The two OSes are like two competitive, wealthy cousins from different sides of a single family tree," Shepard told MacNewsWorld.

From these entwined origins, the two systems embarked on different paths and gathered families of followers either born into the fold or converted to it. For instance, Apple has emphasized the seamless integration of software and hardware, as well as a core focus on graphical feedback. Windows was designed as a licensed product to run on thousands of different computer models produced by dozens of companies around the world, according to Shepard.

Soul Differences

Apple's approach made it easier for developers to assure compatibly and reliability. However, it has also limited the size of Apple's user base, which stood at about 30 million users in early 2008, Shepard noted.

Meanwhile, Microsoft emphasized getting as large a user base as possible for Windows. Now, somewhere around 90 percent of computer users run Windows. On a global scale, having a dominant OS probably helped facilitate mass adoption of personal computers. On the other hand, it also made Windows an attractive and easy target for viruses, Trojans, worms, and other computer attacks, he added.

These two paths followed distinctively different design passions, and it's in the design that the essence of their souls emerge.

Mac OS X has a restrained, coolly calculating soul that effectively handles its business, though perhaps doesn't always tell you about everything on its mind. As a human, Mac OS X would be an efficient, dedicated concierge that smoothly does his job, albeit with an air of quiet superiority. Windows has an aggressive, do-it-all soul, but often huffs and puffs to remind you it's working hard (even if it's for your benefit). As a human, Windows would be a sweaty middle manager stomping around the office, reliable enough and "surprisingly good at karaoke," quipped Shepard.

Designed Distinctions

Peeling back the trappings of each OS unveils a closer glimpse at the architectural differences that separate Mac and Windows systems. At the root of the architecture lies the core programming.

"Windows was built around networking. Its foundation is on highly modifiable DLLs (Dynamic Link Libraries) to support many applications and a registry file for multiple configurations. On the Mac side, the OS is based on Unix, Mach and the Apple OS structure," Gene Spafford, professor in the department of computer sciences at Purdue University, told MacNewsWorld.

Mach is an operating system microkernel Carnegie Mellon University developed to support operating system research. The basis of the Mac OS X is still the core built by Carnegie Mellon.

Architectural Adversaries

Windows' design set led to the growth of an OS that was full of tweeks. The Windows of today evolved from the NT/Windows 2000 structure. It facilitated drag-and-drop convenience and easy-to-install applications, Spafford explained. In contrast, the Mac OS seldom put in a shared library to install applications.

Instead, the Mac uses permissions like Unix. No large-scale system management is needed. The result: When something installs on an Apple computer, the user knows it. The installation cannot happen silently.

Another difference is that most configuration settings on the Mac are in plain text. There is no arcane registry setting like in Windows, and the kernel stays minimal.

"This is the overall Mac philosophy of how things get added in. Microsoft extended the design to add to the kernel," Spafford said.

Growth Spurts

Both the Mac and Windows operating systems are inherently different today than their earlier generations. Apple had a shift in technology that brought an end to the single-threaded OS that was similar to DOS (Disk Operating System), according to Spafford. Windows designers began peeling away the DOS core upon which the Windows GUI (graphical user interface) was applied with the migration to Windows XP.

Similarly, Mac OS 9 was creaking under the load. Steve Jobs, who at this point had returned to head up Apple once again, changed the operating system to make the OS X into a new design, explained Spafford.

"What was novel was its ability to seamlessly emulate OS 9 running under OS X, much like VMware functions today. This enabled users to switch over without losing their software. The new version strengthened Unix as the underlying kernel," he said.

Sensitivity Training

One of the main aspects of the Mac soul is the connection its designers have with Mac users. Gribbons, who specializes in studying how people interact with systems, describes Mac developers as having a deep, intimate understanding of what people want and value.

"Apple maps the system design to whatever product they do to that model. Apple always feels like a user's best friend," said Gribbons.

With Apple, users enjoy a carefully orchestrated experience that is not accidental. From the way it is marketed, sold, packaged and supported, it is designed to be seamless.

"You don't see that from Microsoft," he said.

How Good Is Too Good?

However, this approach almost brought doom to Apple, noted Gribbons. At one point, the company almost went out of business because of it, he said.

"The systems didn't seem serious. They were expensive. There were delays in getting to the market. They wanted to get it perfect, but the market didn't demand this. On the other hand, Microsoft got its products to the market more quickly, and they were good enough. This is how Microsoft captured the market share," Gribbons said.

Addressing this conundrum was part of the soul searching that Mac developers did to salvage the Mac OS from itself. For much of the 1990s and up until about the last five years, the product was almost too good, he explained. Consumers were really buying too much product, and the price point was way above that of Windows-based products.

What's the Diff?

Differences abound in the two systems, but both can do essentially the same things, according to Fernando Machado, who has a decade of experience running a computer maintenance and service business and is a computer expert on JustAnswer.com.

"Windows is better for gaming due to the large amount of games that are available for it. Mac, however, has better overall security and is less prone to attackers," he told MacNewsWorld.

The differences in OS design reflect a clear distinction in what attracts the user base. For instance, the Mac is designed more for graphical and multimedia functions and tends to run better than Windows doing so. Windows, however, is much better with statistical applications as well as office applications. It also seems that Windows is easier for the user to customize, Machado explained.

The Roots of Design

Windows is designed to be a do-it-all-at-any cost OS, which has its benefits and complications, Shepard added. For example, there are six versions of Windows Vista, and there will be six versions of Windows 7, all listed at different prices. In contrast, Apple simply sells one fully loaded version of OS X for one price (US$129). This version even includes Boot Camp for installing Windows on a Mac if desired.

"The biggest difference between the two goes back to their origins. Windows tries to be everything to everyone, is phenomenally successful, but has a history of security vulnerabilities, peripheral incompatibilities (ironically enough), and upgrade confusion. Apple still has a more restrained consumer focus, still controls the design and engineering of its hardware and software, competes hard in some demographics but is content letting others go. Thus, it has a smaller user base," Shepard summarized.

All things considered, the two OSes are starting to become quite similar, according to Mike Palumbo, an IT specialist for the Center for Instructional Technology at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Most OS preference these days is driven by the same brand loyalty that divides Ford and Chevy owners and Coke and Pepsi drinkers, he said -- and the arguments that ensue are often the equivalent of "Tastes Great! vs. Less Filling!"

Soul Survivors

In recent years, both companies have learned from each other and incorporated each other's ideas. Windows has become more user friendly and more slick in its design, while Apple has included functional features and control options that were previously unavailable, according to Palumbo.

"Apple makes a lot of assumptions about what you want control over and makes a lot of decisions for you, and that's great for the majority of the users. Windows gives the user more control and more options, and by virtue of that, more opportunity to mess it up," Palumbo told MacNewsWorld.

Windows designers are catering to an audience that likes to look under the hood and shift manually. The average user can still drive it, but the enthusiast can really tweak it if they desire, he explained. Windows designers have made it possible for IT pros to completely control every aspect of how the computer is used by the employee.

"Apple designs its interface and even the outward hardware to appeal for people who appreciate design. It's slick, shiny and expensive, not unlike buying a sports car," said Palumbo.

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