Although consistent, Windows’ user interface reflects a die-hard business philosophy: If one is enjoying one’s work, then one must be goofing off on company time. Windows is flat, uninspiring, motionless, and utterly unlike actual life. And until about five years ago, the world was OK with that.
Then Apple disturbed the peace with OS X, an operating-system-cum-application-environment with a pervasive presentation layer so gorgeous, fluid, and brilliant that it ruined any chance of OS X being taken seriously by most not already familiar with the Mac. With its seeming aesthetic overkill — which, on closer examination, turns out to be entirely purposeful -- Apple’s user-centric, rather than application-centric GUI approach goes against the grain in the best ways.
Now, though, the grain is aligning with Apple. Microsoft’s Windows Vista, the OS that was once dubbed Longhorn, marks Microsoft’s first step toward acknowledging that a boring desktop user interface might not be in everyone’s best interest.
Apple deserves 100 percent of the credit for proving that if an operating system incorporates an integrated set of graphics, text, media, HTML, and animation services, developers will exploit them. Not only that, but all classes of apps -- from starched-collar database clients and management consoles, to Office, to exotic satellite trajectory mappers, to hundreds of native OS X freeware and shareware apps -- have put GUI services to practical use. Apple makes this easy with free tools and documentation that, with the release of OS X 10.4 (Tiger), rose in quality from acceptable to exemplary; so much so that those unfamiliar with Xcode and its associated toolset can’t believe it costs nothing.
Apple would have a huge head start if Tiger were a first-generation OS. But Tiger is not only Apple’s fourth major generation of its OS technology, it's also updated substantially on a quarterly basis, if not more frequently. Five years of OS X leaves Microsoft and its developers with a lot of catching up to do.
Frankly, there isn’t a lot to drool over in Windows Vista, except the knowledge that Microsoft has finally put Windows’ graphics rendering where it belongs, on the PC’s GPU (graphics processing unit). If that's all Windows Vista will accomplish -- and there is significantly more to it than that -- offloading to the GPU is a huge first step. Apple learned that the road to delighting Mac users was to make the technologies developed for its niche markets -- such as video production, advertising graphics, publishing, animation, and scientific visualization -- available to every application.
In Microsoft’s case, the niche technology surfacing in Windows Vista is DirectX, the accelerated graphics framework created for video game developers. Microsoft’s trek toward a smooth, aesthetic, engaging user experience couldn’t have a stronger start than that.
So there’s more than a glimmer of hope for Windows. Perhaps Microsoft dug into its collective memory and remembered high school, a time when the subjects that catch students’ imaginations tend to be taught by energetic, emotionally devoted, or eccentric teachers. Bored students don’t learn, and bored users of desktop and notebook computers suffer the same kinds of problems with recall, attention span, and focus.
Microsoft may be spectacularly late in deciding a human face might not be such a bad idea after all, but now that the choice has been made, Vista could well mark the beginning of an authentic struggle over users’ hearts and minds.