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Change is not always good
Evolution vs Revolution

By: Darius Garsys

The Macintosh OS hasn't changed much since 1984, but look how much Windows/DOS has changed since then. In fifteen years the Mac will still look the same (and fall behind) while Windows will keep changing.

How many times have we heard, "Mac OS is outdated because its stagnant" argument? Often enough. Recently, I've been hearing this more often (possibly since the hardware battle is firmly in Apple's control at the moment).

First of all, it is important to understand that the Operating System and the User Interface are NOT one and the same.


The interface is how the user interacts with the system and the programs it runs. Using cars as an example;the interface is the controls you use: steering wheel, brake pedal, etc. regardless of the engine or body style.

Some OS's can change interfaces or environment shells without changing the core of the OS. So the statement that the MacOS hasn't changed is false -- it is much more accurate to say that the User Interface changes are so gradual and logical that people haven't noticed them during the last 15 years. While Microsoft has shifted from DOS to Windows, and then to Win 95/NT, with major changes in the interface (as well as the OS).

This is similar to automobiles and their interface. Would you believe some very early cars used what amounted to a tiller to steer? Now, and since at least the 1930's, the interface has remained basically the same: Clutch (optional), a gearshift, a gas pedal, and a brake. Now in the last 60 odd years we've refined the interface. Power Steering, Power Breaks, better positioning of seats, switches, controls, to make them easier to reach and use. We've even added new controls for new things, like CD players, but the basic job of getting from here to there is directed the same way, regardless of what's under the hood. All in all we're looking at over six decades of the same interface. Is it obsolete? Until a better metaphor comes along, no. So what it means is that the interface guys got it right (or close enough), so don't have to keep changing things.

Kaizen is a Japanese term. In general, it means gradual, incremental improvement and refinement -- it is the process the Japanese use in everything from walkmen to cars, making minor changes from year to year that slowly reduce weight, improve reliability, improve usability, and so forth. It is not used for revolutionary changes so much as for evolutionary ones. (For those who've read Deming, hush, I'm simplifying.)

The creation of the Walkman, was a radical idea (revolution). The fact that they weigh less than half of what they did, sound better, and last longer, is the result of Kaizen (evolution). It is possible to look at the MacOS the same way. The original Mac was a revolutionary change for consumer computers. On top of that, a great deal of care was taken to ensure the interface was consistent and worked. While new features have been added (popup windows, launchers, aliases, etc.) and the interface has been refined, actually using the desktop, or the basics of the computer, are often done the same way on my new PowerMac that it is on my Mac SE (circa 1988). Kaizen -- evolutionary, but continuous, improvements.

Windows HAS changed, but to What?

Windows has been a tale of revolutionary (for Microsoft) changes. First, the introduction of Windows itself, beginning the use of a graphical user interface. But Windows 1 and Windows 2 were weird pane based things (Windows didn't overlap, they just tiled around each other). Then 3.0 behaved more like a Mac, but have file and program managers and other oddities. Then Win95/NT4, which adopted the desktop metaphor (like the Mac). So Microsoft's OS's have changed in outward appearance far more than the Mac, but they've done it by adopting more and more of the Mac metaphor, well after the fact.

Nitpicking about how MS implements the metaphor aside (and I've got lots of nits to pick), MS has admitted by imitation, the best form of flattery, that the desktop metaphor works and is the best they've been able to find or imitate after fifteen years. It probably will be until an intuitive non-2d form of input is available. Thus, for Apple to change its metaphor would have been change for the sake of change (or useless flash) rather than to provide useful functionality. Unfortunately MS is fifteen years behind in refining it into usability.

Now that we've explained why not changing the UI can be a good thing, what about the OS? 

Operating System (OS)

On the MS side, Windows has changed dramatically, even though W95 is still based on DOS code for compatibility's sake, and even NT can use a c: prompt and run DOS (so it claims).

On the Mac side? Again, the beauty of Kaizen at work, though it was more of an accident or out of necessity than long-term strategic planning. Here are some of the changes to the MacOS:

  • The first major under the hood changes were incorporated into system 3 on the Mac+, it had features like a RAM based disk cache (Windows still doesn't have that working), and a hierarchical filing system (HFS) that actually allowed folders to be directories (rather than just a visual aid on the desktop).
  • A few networking improvements and bug fixes later, System 4 included the "MultiFinder," which allowed more than one program to run in memory and swapping between them, and color came to the Mac.
  • System 6 rolled out, including more DA's, more fonts, and more printer drivers. It also started making sure the Mac could address more than 8 Meg. (32 bit clean). Windows still has problems with "16 bit" and Apps or part of the system only being able to address 640K.
  • The biggest change was system 7, released may '91. Some of the more important changes: Aliases. An Apple menu you could put anything in. Control Panels, Fonts and extensions were much easier to install and remove. List views could show a hierarchical view. Custom icons could be made by cut-and-paste. QuickTime was introduced -- which added multimedia capability, and has long since become the standard, with every iteration faster and more space-efficient than the last. Some of these System features were very significant changes in the OS code, but from the users standpoint, the computer operation just got more refined, logical, intuitive, flexible, or better organized.
  • System 7.1.2 was made to support the first PowerPC Macs (a whole different processor than before). Microsoft can't do this with Windows 95, though they were able to get WinNT to do it poorly. (WinNT runs on DEC Alpha's, but many Apps don't work well or crash).
  • System 7.5 added more features. It added a launcher, a centralized "Documents" folder. Things like a Clock in the MenuBar, Collapsible Windows, and the Extensions Manager, were incorporated into the OS (borrowed or licensed from shareware). And an OS-wide 3D format that allowed cutting and pasting between apps, improved networking, and drag and drop editing.
  • System 8 included a spiffy face lift, a lot more PPC native code (speed improvements), and a number of enhancements. Folder and desktop views are now controlled from the finder menus rather than a separate control panel. Everything's 3D. Simultaneous copying, deleting, and reorganizing is possible with the multithreaded finder. Contextual menus add more flexibility. Pop up drawers and collapse buttons give you new ways to minimize a window. Organize your desktop by list views. Spring-open folders. And so on.
  • Allegro, due soon, is even faster, consolidates the Internet controls, and adds a much improved search technology that can search your computer or the net. Has more crash protection (more memory protection in the form of guard pages), and so on.
  • Rhapsody has an entirely different internal structure, but is supposed to look and act like the Mac OS (adding some refinement from NeXT). Again, refining what works.

The point. The Mac OS has undergone a lot of under-the-hood improvements, upgrades, rewrites. These have resulted in, over time, the OS actually becoming faster (more native code, more efficient coding) and more stable while adding features and refining the interface (something Microsoft hasn't done). Some of the changes were to interface, some were much deeper. The Mac has not stagnated -- it has grown and thrived, it has changed architecturally more than Windows. But because the interface is still similar to the original, some people get confused.

Looking at both my SE and my PowerMac, I realize something. Despite an improvement in quality, power, and refinements (that are equivalent of going from a poorly recorded tape, to a gold CD) -- the song, thankfully, remains the same. And it rocks.

Created: 4/19/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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