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A Different Approach

Apple and Microsoft really do have different approaches to computing. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am an Apple user (I use Apple laptops, desktops, servers, iPhone and iPad) but I also recognise that the Microsoft approach has some merit.

So what is the big difference between the two? I think it’s that Apple looks forward while Microsoft looks back. That probably sounds critical of Microsoft but it isn’t necessarily. Even as an Apple “fanboy” I readily admit that Apple’s rapid push to new technology and it’s easy abandonment of old ones can be a real problem. The most impressive thing about Microsoft’s operating system is how it retains support for software and hardware which Apple abandoned years ago.

That’s actually not easy. Apple’s approach of moving forward by discontinuing support for older technologies is a lot simpler and I think it gives a better result in the end, but I do admire the fact that Microsoft can make a fairly reasonable operating system (isn’t that an example of damning with faint praise) while maintaining a lot of backward compatibility.

Another philosophy which differentiates the two companies is Microsoft’s “one size fits all” versus Apple’s “fine tune everything” approach. A classic example of this is the company’s two strategies for tablet operating systems. Microsoft have offered a modified version of Windows in the past and are working on Windows 8 in the future. Apple have offered a totally different system: iOS for touch devices and have kept Mac OS for conventional computers.

There is little doubt that Apple’s approach should create a better experience because the apps running on the iPad and iPhone have been designed specifically for those devices. Microsoft apps on Windows 8 will be conventional Windows programs with a touch layer added on top. But there is an advantage to this approach because it makes moving existing programs to tablets a lot easier. Also programs designed for desktop computers tend to be more powerful than the typically simplified versions designed for tablets like the iPad.

Apple have said in the past that one of their key decisions in creating products is not so much what to provide but more what to leave out. In an Apple program what you don’t get is more important than what you do! that may seem odd but let me give an example…

Launch Microsoft’s word processor, Microsoft Word, and compare it with Apple’s Pages. Notice how cluttered Word is compared to Pages. The ribbon, tool bars and all sorts of other user interface elements clutter the screen. Pages is so much cleaner and simpler. But use both programs and you will see that there’s really nothing missing in Pages. All that Apple have left out is the cluttered junk that Microsoft insist of leaving in.

And the same applies to all Microsoft and Apple products. Microsoft Outlook is a cluttered mess where Apple’s Mail and iCal are sleek and clean and tidy. Yet they do the same things. And the same difference can be seen in Excel versus Numbers and PowerPoint versus KeyNote.

It’s not quite as simple as that though, because occasionally Microsoft’s more “complete” approach does provide a feature which is harder to get to (or lacking completely) in the Apple equivalent, so again it’s a difference in philosophy which I think Apple clearly gets right but which I concede is not a simple case of good versus bad. There is a certain amount of subjective preference involved.

Or is there? I remember a sticker one of my clients used to have on his desk. It was that “good design is only a matter of opinion to the ignorant”. In his case he was expressing the frustration he felt when he was asked to change the way a document he had designed looked because the person he created it for had a different idea (usually a far inferior one) and, after all, “design is just a matter of opinion anyway”.

I really don’t think that is true. There is inherently good design and inherently bad. And it’s not just a simple matter of how things look. The underlying metaphor used in the user interface is a far deeper element of design which isn’t always apparent to the user but provides a context for the user to work in.

It will be interesting to see which approach will be successful in the next few years, especially as tablets become even more important than they are now. Apple is no longer the underdog (they are now a bigger company than Microsoft) so the default position of the past – that Microsoft will always win – is far from certain.

Predicting the future of technology is always difficult and I haven’t even mentioned other alternatives such as Google’s mobile operating systems or the possibility of a currently unheard of system appearing and beating everyone else by creating something totally new and brilliant. That’s why I like working in IT: there’s always something new and interesting happening!

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