What OS X Could Learn From Windows: Part 2, A Consistent GUI

by Hadley Stern Aug 19, 2005

After Chris Howard’s great piece a couple of weeks ago I thought I’d continue to stir the pot a little and discuss another aspect of the GUI that Windows does better. Yes, I realize, in some circles this is sacrilege. But just because this site is called Apple Matters doesn’t mean that Microsoft doesn’t matter. Of course, it is my opinion that Apple, for the most part, makes eminently superior products, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things within the Windows universe that we can’t learn from.

And one of those things is how Windows handles, well, windows. In OS X some interface elements have curves, other do not. For example, the top toolbar in Photoshop is nice and straight-edged, but the document window itself has curved edges. This is and of itself is bothersome, but what drives me more bonkers is that windows don’t automatically line up perfectly with other elements of the Application GUI.

Now let’s take a look at Windows. One of the things that I like about Windows is that elements of the GUI fit in nicely together. They may not have as much “fit and finish” (otherwise know, somewhat disparagingly, as eye-candy) but when you maximize a window in Windows everything lines up perfectly. This is also a consistent behavior from application to application whereas in OS X things are not consistent. For example, in Microsoft Word when you hit the Maximize (or plus sign) button the document tucks in to the left. In Photoshop the document goes to a hundred percent and stays wherever it is on the Window.

Other examples of GUI inconsistencies abound on OS X. And it wasn’t always this way on the Mac. The Classic operating system, at least from a random use of curves standpoint, was much more consistent. What do you think, does the way OS X handles windows compared to Windows bother you?


  • It ain’t just the windows, Hadley. OS X has lots of quirky inconsistencies. The majority we get used to and then don’t see anymore.

    There’s the obvious mixing up of Brushed Metal and Platinum (is that what the new one’s called).  And then there’s all the different variations on styles of toolbars - compare System Preferences, Mail, Safari, iTunes, iPhoto and Pages. They are all different types and styles. Talk about making it hard for the newbie with inconsistency!

    Another is this in 10.4, Tiger:

    - Command-click on a Dock icon. You get a context menu which includes: “Keep in Dock” and “Open at Login”

    Okay, nothing wrong so far…

    - If you select “Keep in Dock”, it changes to “Remove from Dock”

    If you select “Open at Login”, it places a tick in front of it.

    Why can’t they both exhibit the same behavior? Either both use the “tick” method, or both use the “rename” method. Would you be confused if the menu item said “Remove from Login” or would you be confused if there was a tick in front of “Keep in Dock”?

    Nitpicking you might say, but those little things are the polish, and it’s the polish we claim that makes OS X better.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • “Remove from Login” makes little sense, “remove from dock” does wink

    Anyway, great to see Windows is consistant. Maybe consistantly shoddy, but consistant. What I do not like about OS X is the inconsistancy regarding the opening of new windows or items within an app. Ususally this should be command+n. Eudora gives you a new blank Email, which is ok. Safari gives you a blank window, also fine. iCal gives you a new blank entry, makes sense. Quicktime opens a new player, nice. For some reason iTunes gives you a new playlist, but at least you can also command a new smart playlist this way. All this happenes even if the app has no active window at the time of command+n, so you might just tab-switch to iCal/whatever, press command+n and you will get some sort of window belonging to said app.
    Now try this with Addressbook.
    As you will notice, there is no way to access Addressbook without using the mouse. Command+n will give you a new contact, but only if the window is displayed first. That’s quite daft, considering Addressbook is an Apple app.
    Of course this is nitpicking, but I see no rational cause to it being this way. Consistancy is important since it promotes effectiveness, therefore the system an apps have to be as consistant as possible, period.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 371
  • I agree, Bad Beaver on the “Remove from Login” so lets go with ticks.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Just noticed iTunes does the same daft thing when the window is closed, but at least you can get to the main window with command+1. Darn…

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Chris, ticking “keep in dock” makes less sense since once you “untick” it the icon will be removed. As that is a destructive action in a way it makes more sense to display “remove from dock” so there is no doubt about what happens when you choose it, while the presence of a tick will not be as evident about the action that will be triggered by said option.

    Nevertheless, I would like to see the “open at Login” option in the context menu when selecting an inactive app so I do not have to start said app in order to get it to the dock in order to tell it to start at Login. Of course an app I want at Login would most likely be in my Dock anyway, but… it should not have to be *g*

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 371
  • “Don’t open at Login” would be clearer, perhaps? This example is a bit tricky (coherency vs. clarity vs. agility): such a parameter would be fine as a tick box in the corresponding Info pane, but then accesing it would be slower. By the way, it would be nice if the open-at-login apps allowed for disabling them instead of removing them, old Extensions Manager-style.

    But you are quite right: we have about six or seven window styles in Tiger and Apple’s apps, with inconsistent properties (border width, grabbable areas, etc.).

    By the way. isn’t it ironic that Microsoft Office tries so hard at keeping up with Aqua’s guidelines and peculiarities, like autoadjusting to the Dock’s height? Even if they are plain silly, such as auto-resizing palettes wich are a nuisance.

    juanxer had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 9
  • BB, your consistency in using “consistancy”, highlights another value of consistency… it subconsciously tells the user “this is right”. You nearly had me fooled, I had to double check the spell checker.

    So, conversely, Apple by having these inconsistencies, are sending a subliminal message that “we don’t know which way is right and we’ll just keep fuddling around til we do.”

    PS I’m not having a go at your spelling! smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • I actually like what a lot of people call inconsistency.  I call it variety, and it helps keep the OS experience more interesting.  It also provides more options, so that different solutions can be used for different problems. 

    I get bored just using a windows pc, plus they’re about as inconsistent as you can get, with two completely different interfaces.  One that’s absolutely boring, and lets you discover all the Wizzards as you go, and one that’s slightly less boring, albiet quite ugly and in the way, which force Wizzards upon you at every turn.

    I prefer the clean varied lines of OSX with thoughtfully chosen (for the most part) solutions to various problems.  As for the Command-N thing, it makes total sense to me.  The equivalent of a new document in some applications is a new window (ie Safari).  At least Apple chose to organize their menu system in a cohesive way.

    arton had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Ehhh, no problemo maaan, me just no native speaker, and 4 som funny words me is just to plain stoopid, they fixed in me system, you know? wink

    Arton, the problem with command+n is that it does not work everywhere although it better should. When I command+n I want something new to pop up, “N” as in new *g*

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Umm the thing about the square windows and rounded windows? That’s to make it obvious what is a pallet and what is a window. Windows stay visible when you switch apps, pallets get hidden. It isn’t a consistency issue. It’s more a case of using two different title bars to differentiate between two different types of windows.

    pilky had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 5
  • I hate to say it, but Windows consistancy on Windows is largly determined by the application. For example, Trillian, a chat program, doesn’t quite match the rest of windows. Though it’s fully skinable, there’s no option to force it to use the ‘XP style’. However, Microsoft apps tend to be really good at staying consistant, but even they get it wrong sometimes. eg. In normal windows, when I highlight a menu, It’s shaded in light blue. When I highlight a menu in Outlook, the entry spawns a dark blue border and gets orange shading. I actually like the Outlook method better than the normal one, but I can’t find a way to modify windows to have that style without going overboard *cough*windows blinds*cough*. I’ll take screenshots later to show you guys what I mean.

    makken had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 21
  • The Dock is both the best and the worst thing that has happened to OS X (and before anyone says something like “It’s just a version of the Windows Task Bar, let me say this: 1) No, they behave in *very* different ways, and 2) Open application task lists predate Windows 95 in the NeXT OS and other [Unix] X-Windows interfaces).

    Ok, back to the Dock. When I first started using OS X, I was prepared to hate it.  It breaks a lot of old Apple Human Interface Guideline rules and does detract a bit from the simplicty of the traditional Mac OS desktop…

    But I’ll be damned if I don’t use most of it’s little features. I never used “launch bars” or other app organizers back in the OS 9 days, even though there were a few stand out examples. I usually just kept a tabbed folder full my commonly used aliases at the bottom of the screen near the trash icon.

    I use the Dock constantly.  Granted, I turned off most of its annoying “features” like the icon zooming and genie effect… I also pinned it to the upper left instead of the bottom (the left side due to some old OS 9 habits that refuse to die).

    Despite it’s foibles, the Dock seems to work (for me, at least) as the primary entry point for my application and document organization. I rarely start off in a Finder window and almost always go directly to the folders I’ve put on the Dock.

    One problem is that many apps still aren’t “Dock aware” if it is any place other than the foot of the page. I often get windows that open underlapped with the left-side pinned dock, but I never see that happen when the dock is below.

    As for the rest of the UI, Apple does have to get its house in order in some places. I’ve never been a big fan of 10.3’s brushed aluminum and still not with the 10.4 modified version (Platinum?). 10.2 still looks to me to be the “cleanest” the UI has ever been.

    The biggest problem we have now is that application developers don’t know when or how to use one look over the other, so applications have become a mish-mash of the traditional white/pinstripe accompanied by the over-use of aluminum. This is making the overall OS experience suffer a little (although it does make Firefox and Safari windows look very distinctly different).

    I hadn’t noticed the square/round corner issue until it was mentioned here, but again, that’s an artifact of the white pinstripe windows looking different than the metal ones. It allows the programmer to make square corners with the metal look, when it should be that white should only get square corners and metal gets the rounded ones.

    If I could only have 10.4 features done in the 10.2 UI, I’d be a real happy camper.

    That’s to make it obvious what is a pallet and what is a window

    Pilky, I wish that were true. If you look at Safari, it has rounded corners up top and square corners down below. This is clearly a white/pinstripe window left over since that’s the way 10.2 drew all windows. Now look at a Finder window (or iTunes) and it is curved all around. I’m in 10.3, so I don’t know if Safari is “fixed” for 10.4.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 243
  • My take is that the dock is rooted in Newton OS, as many things in OS X. Even the “poof” cloud when you drop an item out the dock is from Newton OS. Inkwell is based on ancient Newton technology. There is so much Newton in OS X one really has to wonder…
    BTW, if you have the desire to see a poslished UI, go pick up a Newton MP2100 or 130 off eBay and play with it for a while if you never did. Put up a sticky reminding you that “this is from 1998”.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 371
  • I actually find the Windows GUI, on average, to be much more inconsistent than the Mac GUI, although the latter does have its inexplicable quirks (like the Mail toolbar in Tiger).

    I understand the point of the article in this series, i.e. there are things the Mac could learn from Windows. However, the GUI is not one of those thing in general. Sure, there are sporadic elements here and there, but for the most part, Windows has a highly inconsistent GUI. In addition, sometimes consistency doesn’t necessarily produce the most sensible design.

    Take the maximize example. Maximize on Windows opens a window to fill the entire screen, however large. But maximize on the Mac makes the window large enough to fit the content, but no more than necessary. Certainly, the Windows approach to maximize is more consistent.

    But try maximizing a MSN Messenger window on the Mac vs. maximizing it on Windows and tell me which makes more sense.
    On Windows, the Messenger window fills the entire screen. But really, do you want really want your Messenger window to stretch out across 1280, 1440, or 1600 pixels of space, when there is only a thin column of contacts?

    The Mac approach to maximize insures that the Messenger window doesn’t needlessly fill the screen with a window that is mostly devoid of content, but only extends the window vertically as much as possible. Which method more sensible and more productive?

    Instead, the Mac would be better off fixing the things that annoy Mac users, without having to necessarily look to Windows for examples. Mac users know the things that annoy them, but Mac users would be better off if Apple found its own way of addressing those annoyances.

    Just take a look at the situation in the Linux world, where you end up with desktops like KDE and Gnome which go out of their way to slavishly duplicate the Windows experience feature for feature. In the end, you get a very trashy, frustrating, and highly inconsistent hard-to-use interface.

    The problem with Windows consistency is that often, the reason for that consistency sits on a shaky foundation, and when duplicated across the entire GUI, creates a disharmonious, counter-productive, and counter-intuitive interface.

    Paul had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 31
  • Another major inconsistency with windows on Windows is the disparity between MDI and non-MDI application.

    MDI (multiple document interface) apps like Photoshop and Excel put their document windows and floating palettes inside an app window. This is very annoying in that when you resize a document window, you often have to resize the apps window, too. It’s twice the work.

    Yet MDI apps mix freely with non-MDI apps like Word. When you open up each Word document, each opens in its own window complete with toolbars and menus.

    Try this very harrowing and annoying example on Windows.

    Open up Word, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Then open up 3 documents for each app. Now try to switch back between the various document windows. Now try figuring out which palette belongs to which app. Now minimize a few document windows in both Photoshop and Illustrator, switch to another app and then try to find and open one of the minimized windows. If maximized, try to quickly switch to one of the other document windows for that app.

    Now try the same thing on the Mac. It’s a world of difference.

    Paul had this to say on Aug 19, 2005 Posts: 31
  • Page 1 of 2 pages  1 2 >
You need log in, or register, in order to comment