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Two Words for Switchers

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'Sales of Apple's Macintosh computers have been growing much faster than PC sales overall, with many new Mac buyers switching from years of using Windows computers', wrote Walt Mossberg yesterday.

'For that reason every month I get emails from readers asking about the differences in using the Windows and Macintosh operating systems. While the Windows and Mac user interfaces are broadly similar, they do have subtle variations in day to day use that require some reeducation for switchers.'

And so Walt comes up with a short list of tips. And these are good tips but it gets even easier if you're able to assimilate the 'subtle' difference. For once you understand why the systems are different you'll be able to apply that understanding wherever you go.

The 'subtle' difference can be summed up in two words.

  1. Object.
  2. Orientation.

This article is a bit of history and a bit of tutorial; but considering the transition will take you about a month anyway: what's a few more minutes now? So get a cuppa and sit back and relax.

Alan Kay

Alan Kay led the Learning Research Group at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox financed this research because they saw a day on the horizon when paper wouldn't be the dominant document form and they wanted to be there ahead of everyone else. Kay had worked with children and something called 'Logo'; he saw the same type of 'graphical' interface applying to adults.

Kay coined the term 'object orientation' to describe his vision. Kay's vision was a bunch of self-contained organisms floating about on the desktop so to speak; they could communicate with one another and above all they were self-correcting. And even though he referred to these things as organisms he chose to call the technology not 'organism' but object orientation.

Steve Jobs Visits

Steve Jobs and select colleagues at Apple paid a visit to Kay's lab. For this Jobs compensated Xerox with an undisclosed sum. What Jobs and the others learned on this visit became the basis of the 'graphical interface' Apple were to use first in their Lisa and later in their Macintosh.

Bill Gates Steals

Bill Gates was contracted by Steve Jobs to write software for the Macintosh. What Bill Gates really wanted was to get his hands on the Mac prototypes - he wanted to steal the idea. All things considered it's amazing Bill and his people did such a poor job of stealing. For already back in the early 1980s Microsoft made a big blunder that's been harming computer users ever since.

Maybe Bill just didn't get it: maybe he just thought it was a bad idea; maybe they didn't really notice the 'subtle differences'; but in any case they missed the whole point of 'object orientation'. Right from the get-go - right from the very first release of Windows in December 1985.

For the whole point of dividing a desktop up into different 'windows' is that you separate the 'window' from the 'program'. And yet if you check out the screen dumps of that first Windows release you'll see they didn't do this.

The program's menu is glued onto a single window.

And this sad fact - this clumsy mistake - has followed and haunted zbillions of computer users ever since.

Orientation Types

There are two distinct types of desktop 'orientation' derived from Alan Kay's work: one was used by Kay himself in the LRG lab and the other was used by Xerox in a prototype they later produced. The one that's not as well known today is called the 'action oriented desktop' whilst the more popular one is the 'object oriented desktop'.

The differences are perhaps not readily apparent. On the one you might pick up an icon for a pen representing a text editor and drag to and drop it on an icon for a text document; in the other you'd just double-click on the text document icon to open the document with its default editor.

There are elements of 'object orientation' in all computer desktops today but none of the others are object oriented save IBM's now retired OS/S, Apple's old 'MacOS', and NeXTSTEP and its derivatives including Apple's current Mac OS X.

Microsoft tried to get away with calling their Windows 95 object oriented but got flak from IBM and retreated to using the new term 'document oriented' instead.

Application != Window

Microsoft equate the application with the window when there's no such correlation - when this goes against the whole idea of object orientation. To open two documents with the same editor in Windows requires launching the editor twice.

And these two separate processes have limited capabilities of working together.


A remedy purportedly suggested by IBM was introduced with Windows 3.0 and called 'MDI' - the multiple document interface. This 'technology' gradually disappeared - but not before influencing Word, the other 'MS Office' applications, and the Norwegian web browser Opera.

Microsoft had for years been touting their 'Borland killer': the 'Microsoft Foundation Classes'. And with this 'MFC' a revamped development environment which gravitated around MDI. MDI still held everything in a window but allowed for 'child windows' residing inside and contained by the main or 'frame' window.

[The abortive Opera started with this paradigm and gradually introduced 'tabs' as a way around it. Ed.]

Radsoft introduced a parallel technology in the early 1990s called 'MSI' - the multi-sibling interface - which closely resembled NeXTSTEP and 'MacOS'; however without the cooperation of low level system code the possibilities were still limited.

Today Microsoft have no way of turning back: it's not just their users who depend on applications equating to windows - the software does as well. Microsoft can try to close the gap on any number of other technologies but here they're screwed and they know it.

There are no two ways of putting it: the 'Microsoft way' of dealing with the graphical desktop is simply inferior. And what makes matters worse is the open source GNOME and KDE desktops for Linux haven't done things the right way either - both of them mindlessly copy Microsoft.

[Sun made the same mistake. They had a on OpenStep licence but scrapped it to concentrate on their Java. Ed.]


Bearing in mind you can never again (thankfully) equate a window with an application you can conclude the following.

  • Starting now there's a difference between closing a window and exiting an application.
  • If an application can have more than one window then closing a window can't exit the application.
  • You can't put the menu on the window because the menu applies to all windows and the application itself.
  • 'Context menus' become less relevant because the application menu itself is by definition 'contextual'.
  • You'll find 'File' and 'Edit' and 'Help' menus as before but you'll also find an 'application' menu.

Some immediately accessible advantages.

  • You can drop a zillion gajillion document icons on an application's dock icon all at once.
  • When an application can load several windows at once it can work better with the windows.
  • If you want to close all the windows belonging to an application you simply exit the application.
  • Things such as 'save all' which are complex on Windows (Radsoft did it) are trivial on Mac OS X.

Back to Walt

With the above in mind it's time to go back to Walt's tips for switchers.

  • Menu Bars: In Windows each program typically has its own menu bar. On the Mac there's a single menu bar at the top of the screen that changes depending on which program you are actively using.

    Yes. But nothing's written in stone that the menu has to be a bar at the top. By definition all submenus are detachable and the original design had the menu cascading out of the left of the screen. This menu could also be moved around; it retained its 'spatiality' from session to session as well. Detachable submenus became in essence 'toolboxes' which is one reason NeXTSTEP had no toolbars - it didn't need them.

  • Task Bar: The equivalent of the Windows XP Task Bar on the Mac is the Dock. Unlike the Task Bar, which primarily holds icons representing open windows, the Mac Dock primarily holds icons of programs you use most often. To place a program onto the Dock, you just drag its icon there. To remove it, you just drag its icon off the Dock and it disappears in a puff of animated smoke.

    The important distinction here is the dock has icons and these icons can represent a running application or no. There'll be a small triangle or blue bulb under the icon of a running application. You can also rearrange the order of these icons to better suit your uses - just drag them to where you want them to be.

    The dock icons are also drag-drop clients: you can drag document icons onto them to open files.

  • Keyboard shortcuts: Common Windows keyboard commands, such as Ctrl-S for Save, Ctrl-P for Print, and many others, are also available on the Mac. However, instead of using the Control key, they use the Mac's Command key, which bears either a cloverlike symbol or an Apple logo. So on the Mac for instance Command-S is for Save.

    The fact of course is all these shortcuts originated on the Mac. The 'ctrl' key is used for something else here - most often to equate to the 'secondary' mouse button.

  • Quitting programs: In Windows, you quit a program by clicking on the red 'X' in a square at the upper right corner of the window you're using. But on the Mac, if you click on the equivalent button - a red 'X' in a circle in the upper left corner - you are merely closing the window, not quitting the program. To quit the program, you must either select Quit from the leftmost menu or press the Command and 'Q' keys together.

    But if you've been paying attention you already knew that.

Takes Time

No matter how superior the experience it takes time to get used to the new and better way of doing things. YMMV but count on about a month until you're comfy in your shoes.

One thing is certain: if you really grasp what you're doing there's no way you're ever going to switch back.

See Also
WSJ Personal Technology: Some General Tips for Switch to Mac from Windows

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