On Design: The Philosophies of Apple and Microsoft


via joedombrowski.com

1. Introduction

I decided to write this article for a few reasons: First was a conversation on the design of mobile operating systems on one of the tech podcasts I listen to (it may have been The Verge, but I listen to so many, I can't recall) that stated that as the oldest design of the modern mobile OSes, it was time for a complete rethinking of the design language of iOS. The second was Joanna's segment on the last "On The Verge", where she showed the interface tweaks of Rainmeter and Fences. Tiring of Windows Aero, I spent the past 2 days tweaking and customizing Windows, despite absolutely loving Aero when it came out.


Custom desktop using Rainmeter with the Omnimo 4 skin, via joedombrowski.com

This got me thinking about the design philosophies of Microsoft and Apple. The conventional thought is that Apple is the design forward company, valuing design at the expense of usability and function, and that Microsoft is the opposite, eschewing high design for higher functionality. Though there is evidence to back up this thought, I see much more evidence to the contrary.

Note that throughout this editorial, I refer to design, interface design, et al. meaning the visual design language. This is not about how the interfaces work, functionality, or usability. It is a purely visual comparison. It also never refers to hardware design, as this is exclusively a comparison of software.

2. Genesis

The basis of conventional thought



via images.damieng.com

In 1984, with the introduction of the Mac, Apple made it abundantly clear where they intended the desktop paradigm to go. They eschewed the typewriter style monospace fonts for the first digital typeface to feature (primitive) kerning, as designed by Susan Kare (Silberman, 2011). Though Microsoft also released proportionally spaced fonts with Windows in 1985, it was clearly Apple who pioneered this philosophy. In the same trend, the Macintosh has continually updated its font rendering with the goal of displaying fonts as they appear in print.

The trend continues into the modern day of the competing text rendering philosophies of Microsoft and Apple. To apple, the font is king. For example, on a capital 'A', the middle bar might appear between two pixels. On a Mac, the font would not move the bar, but use two rows of pixels at a lower intensity to accurately render the original font proportions. On the other hand, a Windows system would simply move the line up or down so that it aligned to the actual pixel grid. The result is sharper text, that is easier to read, but does not correspond to the appearance of printed text (Spolsky, 2007). Additionally, Windows does not use a linear scaling of fonts; again, this leads to better readability, but at the expense of the integrity of both font and layout (Guard, 2007).

I will not comment on which philosophy is right, because both have their benefits, but because I tend to do a lot of minimalist design involving typography, I prefer the Mac style (despite being primarily a Windows user). For those like me, the GDIPP project attempts to bring better font rendering to Windows, though I had to do some pretty severe tweaking to the settings to make it look good in all circumstances (gdipp: Customizable Windows text renderers, 2010).


This is an often overlooked aspect of the design debate, but in my opinion, an important continuation of the previous section. From their inception until 2009, the gamma of the two competing platforms differed. Mac OS used a gamma value of 1.8, while Windows used 2.2. Microsoft chose 2.2, because it was the gamma used in the television industry, further solidifying their 'digital design' philosophy. On the other hand, even though the native gamma of the original Macintosh monitor was 2.5 (the same as cinema), Apple decided that the platform would adopt a value of 1.8 in order to better match on screen text and graphics to their printed counterparts, as the standard gamma for commercial printers was 1.8 (Johnson, 2006).

I mentioned that this was until 2009. When Apple released Snow Leopard, they changed the default gamma setting in Mac OS from 1.8 to the 2.2 value of Windows. So why 2.2 and not 2.5? Well, the higher the gamma, the darker non color-managed images will look. In the dark environment of a cinema, 2.5 is perfect for accurately representing color, while in a home or office environment, it might appear too dim. Therefore, the compromise used for decades in televisions was brought over to the computer.

2. Exodus

Expelling the myth

The early interfaces of operating systems were less an exercise in high design, and more in usability. In 1994, our family purchased a Macintosh Performa 630CD. The bundled 800x600 12" monitor seemed positively enormous at the time, but is dwarfed by the giant monitors we use now. The 15 and 17" 1024x768 monitors we purchased alongside our next two computers (Compaq Presario 4860 and Compaq Presario 7360), though larger, didn't fare much better. This meant that through Windows 98 and Mac OS 8/9, information density was far more important than design, eliminating some tenets of classic design like negative/white space and separation of elements. Interfaces were typically thin grey tool-bars packed with menus, icons, and information output. Though there were obviously still design considerations in both, neither platform had reached the point where a serious design conversation could be breached.

On the other hand, in 2001, the proliferation of larger, higher resolution monitors was becoming much greater, and both Microsoft and Apple attempted to take advantage of the new real estate with the first "design forward" operating systems: Windows XP and Mac OS X.

Microsoft: Design for the time

Uncharacteristically, Microsoft chose a playful approach to its 2001 operating system. With a blue taskbar, green start button, animated paperclip, and bold red accents, Microsoft's "Luna" design language continues to confuse me. Why would a company who provides such a high percentage of the world's business oriented computers choose this approach? I was unable to find any definitive sources discussing the design language of Windows XP, presumably because design on and for computer interfaces was relatively new at this point, so everything I say here is conjecture.


Microsoft's "Luna" design language, via x2q.net

The only thing I can think of is that Apple had been running an ad campaign for years, heralding Mac OS as the simple and approachable alternative to the dense and difficult Windows. By choosing a playful theme, Microsoft may have hoped to increase the appeal of their operating system to the same crowd Apple was trying to woo away. One thing that I am sure of is that the design was specifically to appeal to the computer user of the time, a reaction to what came before. After 16 years of design for information density, Microsoft decided to do the polar opposite.

For me, what comes next is what is much more interesting to me. The playful primary colors of Windows XP's Luna language gave way to the Aero interface of 2006. With Vista, Microsoft moved to smooth transition effects, masses of transparency, and a much more "professional" look. This is another prime example of the "design for the times" philosophy that Microsoft has employed since the very beginning. As computers became more powerful, and the install base of performance video cards increased, Microsoft created a design language to show off the new power. At the time, Aero was intensely refreshing from a design point of view, and in my opinion, made Windows the most beautiful operating system on the market. The blend of the disappearing interface with these high end graphical flourishes immediately made everything else seem dated.


Microsoft's "Aero" design language, via photos.joedombrowski.com

At its release, my initial thought was that the Aero interface was thoroughly modern, and would stand the test of time. Though Aero looks far from bad by today's standards, it is certainly showing its age. After the novelty of the see through windows and 3D effects wore off, Aero is beginning to overstay its welcome.

Enter Metro. The first time Microsoft showed hints of a brand new design language was on the Zune music player and desktop software. A new typographic interface characterized by text running off the edge, clean lines, and bold colors, the Zune had a design never seen before in computing. Microsoft continued to refine the language, culminating in the release of Windows Phone 7. They took some of the characteristic elements and gave them meaning. For example, on the Zune, the cut off text was simply for design's sake, while on Windows Phone, it signifies that there's more to be seen on the next page. Next year, Windows will undergo a similar shift, bringing the metro design language to the desktop.


Microsoft's "Metro" design language, via windowsteamblog.com

My reaction to Metro is similar to how I felt at the onset of Aero: this is a bold, beautiful, and modern interface. It once again leapfrogs the competition in design, but for how long? Will I look again in 5-6 years and think that Metro is looking old? As much as I hate to admit it, I probably will. It's unabashedly modern, and I would go so far as to say that it defines the cutting edge of interface design in 2011, but as is the fate of most powerful designs, there will come a time when the trends change and it simply dates itself.

Although it never occurred to me until the transition from XP to Vista, this trend is not new. In 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0 with a color palette that could only look good on a black and white monitor. In 1990, the OS received a major design change, opting for a much more subtle color scheme. 1995 brought the taskbar, the start menu, and an all gray interface. It was clean and professional, but also a bit dull. In 2001 (A year late, Microsoft!) came the primary colors, bevels, and curves of Windows XP, followed by Aero in 2006, and finally Metro in 2011. Each iteration seemed extremely modern at its inception, but none of them aged particularly well.

Going back to my opening statement, this shows Microsoft not as a "function over form" company, but as one who continually designs for the current time, cyclically throwing away their design language and starting anew. Especially in recent years, Microsoft is definitely a design forward company, whose products speak of the current state of the art in computing and interface design.

Apple: Design for timelessness

Unlike Microsoft's propensity to put themselves out on the cutting edge of design, Apple has always opted for the classic look. One that, though it never leaps out as an expression of modern design, tends to age more gracefully.

If you look at Mac OS, the basic interface is the same from version 1 right up through Lion. A simple desktop, a small bar of menus at the top, and that's it. However, clearly, the colors and patterns have changed dramatically through the years. Like the Windows side, I will focus on more recent history, including only Mac OS X and iOS.

Though earlier versions of Mac OS X suffered from the less than beautiful Aqua color scheme, which has been slowly phased out for the current subtle gray interface enjoyed by Lion, OS X has never had a major design language shift. Each version makes some subtle changes: subduing colors and patterns, transparency on the menu bar, a 3D dock, but overall, OS X looks much the same today as it did in 2001.


Mac OS 10.0 (Left) and OS 10.7 Lion (Right), via photos.joedombrowski.com

This, in and of itself isn't all that interesting; that doesn't come into play until you start making comparisons. For me, in 2001, it was a toss-up between Luna and Aqua as to which looked better. I leaned towards Luna as long as the silver theme was applied, but Aqua otherwise.

By 2005, the design of OS X was a bit of a mess. Some applications used the familiar Aqua theme, some the brushed metal, and yet others used the flat gray more common on the later versions. However, by then, Windows XP was so overdue for an update, that even in this state, Mac OS stood out as a much nicer piece of design.

However, when Vista brought Aero, Windows took the clear lead in design. It was a much more focused, coherent, and contemporary design language, and to me, was far more appealing. Until it wasn't. Recently, I've been once again preferring the design on Mac OS X, especially now that the inconsistency is all but gone. (Ignoring the "playful" vestiges of Aqua, like the beach ball, bouncing dock icons, and minimize effect)

Metro will once again pull ahead, but I suspect that given enough time, Mac OS will once again start to look more appealing. This cycle makes perfect sense. Just like Apple looked to printed text to inform the design of Macintosh System 1, Apple has always looked towards more timeless design elements from outside of the electronic world, giving it a more classic, but never exciting, appearance.

This brings me back to iOS, and the notion that it needs a complete redesign. In the face of Windows Phone Mango and Android's Ice Cream Sandwich, it certainly doesn't look modern, but I suspect that Apple isn't going to make any dramatic changes any time soon. They'll ride out the wave of contemporary styles, and likely come out on the other side with a product that never seems too out of date.


Real world influences in Apple's Design, via photos.joedombrowski.com

However, there is one area that Apple should reconsider. Given their tendency to pull design from outside of technology, it's unsurprising that they turned to real world objects for some of their latest redesigns. A leather bound contacts book, a calendar complete with torn off page, and other new applications on Lion could end up hurting the longevity of their design unless they rethink it, and fast. Though Apple has seen great design longevity for thinking outside of the digital domain, at the end of the day, the interface needs to cue the user how to interact, and needs to be designed for the medium on which it will appear, and these ‘real world' applications simply do not work well in a desktop environment.

4. Revelations

Putting it all together

It should be clear by now that Apple does not have the monopoly on design. Both companies, especially in the modern computing era, have been very design focused, but have adopted extremely different philosophies. Which is better? To be honest, that's a matter of opinion. I'd personally almost always choose the new and exciting design when it first comes out, but as it ages, I start looking elsewhere.

It's a similar situation to fashion. Every decade is defined by some modern, forward design fashion. At the time, they are new, they look great, but glancing back through the decades, one can only be left to think "Why did we ever think that looked good?" On the other hand, Apple's design seems to never go out of style. It's the black slacks and white button down shirt, never at the cutting edge, but always appropriate.

Innovation and design at the interactive element level is a completely separate story, and I may write up an editorial on that as well, but as for visual design, you can choose your own poison. Even if that poison is Windows.

5. References

gdipp: Customizable Windows text renderers. (2010, September). Retrieved December 15, 2011, from Google Code: http://code.google.com/p/gdipp/

Guard, D. (2007, June). Font rendering philosophies of Windows & Mac OS X. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from damieng: http://damieng.com/blog/2007/06/13/font-rendering-philosophies-of-windows-and-mac-os-x

Johnson, B. (2006, September 3). Earthbound Light. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from The Gamma Question: 1.8 or 2.2?: http://www.earthboundlight.com/phototips/gamma-18-or-22.html

Silberman, S. (2011, November 22). The Sketchbook of Susan Kare, the Artist Who Gave Computing a Human Face. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from PLoS BLOGS: http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2011/11/22/the-sketchbook-of-susan-kare-the-artist-who-gave-computing-a-human-face/

Spolsky, J. (2007, June 12). Font smoothing, anti-aliasing, and sub-pixel rendering. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from Joel on Software: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2007/06/12.html