After I installed Windows Vista in November 2006, I was perplexed. Why was it suddenly so much harder for me to use my computer? I knew XP cold, and I could use it without thinking. But with Vista, I felt a little lost and began to notice the extra work required to perform tasks that had become second nature. By hiding various features in an attempt to simplify Vista's interface, Microsoft was in fact adding overhead to my Vista transition, forcing me to learn a new UI.
Like many, I just couldn't see how Vista's "new look" benefited the Windows experience. I became further entrenched in my belief that Microsoft's ongoing divergence from the well-established menu approach pioneered by Apple is fundamentally wrong.
[ Which OS wins the UI contest? See Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X side by side in InfoWorld's comparative slideshow. ]
Microsoft Office -- and to a lesser extent Internet Explorer -- went nuts in this direction, relying on buttons, variable menus, and right-clicking for almost everything. These UIs made Vista's user interface appear intuitive by comparison, yet they also hinted at further UI confusion to come. It was as if Microsoft's strategy for UI design was to leave its customers at a loss for where to start or what to do next. Not surprisingly, users have rejected Microsoft's latest offerings in amazing numbers.
Me, I took the easy route: I switched to a Mac and have been happy ever since. Tiger, the Mac OS X version available at that time, proved robust, offering a modern yet familiar UI. The current Mac OS X Leopard is even better. But here comes Windows 7, seeking to breathe life back into Windows where Vista had stumbled. Less than a year from being released, Windows 7 aims to fix the many Vista flaws, including its UI. I decided to test-drive the Windows 7 beta to see whether Microsoft had redressed its UI sins.
The bottom line: Nothing in Windows 7 will tempt a Mac user back to the PC. There are some cool, useful enhancements, but overall, the UI remains largely unchanged. In other words, those who upgrade from XP to Windows 7 will still have to relearn Windows.
A caveat: Windows 7 is in beta stage, so it's not complete. Who knows what Microsoft will change before it ships sometime in the next year?
Where Mac OS X beats the Windows 7 UI
Finder toolbar and search: Known for delighting its users, Mac OS X offers extras that you grow to love the more you use them. Take the Finder toolbar, which you can customize to burn contents to disc, for example, or to get a quick look at an item's contents. File search in Mac OS X is much more sophisticated and easier to use than it is in Windows, allowing you to search and sort by practically any criteria in a simple window UI. Windows 7, for its part, offers very limited per-search controls; you can use them only before you start a search. By comparison, you can easily add and refine search criteria at any time on the Mac, refining your results live as you do so. Plus, Mac OS X's special folder views -- columns and the CoverFlow image browser pioneered in iTunes -- make it much easier to navigate large file stores and image sets, respectively.