I can’t take it any more. In one corner, we have PC pundits negatively reviewing Apple’s possibly-upcoming iPhone weeks before it’s announced — reviewing a product they know nothing about that may not even exist. (Incidentally, Microsoft’s new MadeUp Pro 2007 Edition — total crap. So is the new Imaginesoft NeverNeverLand iMadeUp Express.)

And in the other corner, we have a never-ending flood of reviews of Microsoft Windows Vista, weeks before third-party developers have shipped most of the drivers and application releases that would let them fully test it, bashing the new OS based on old, often misleading arguments. In a way, it’s only fair. After years of getting unfairly slammed in the press (remember the late-90s, when every Apple news story began with “the beleaguered computer maker”?), Apple now has some of its most vocal advocates helming the computer analysis for the New York Times, CBS, Chicago Sun-Times, Newsweek, and Wall Street Journal.

CDM Senior Editor W. Brent Latta sums up everything I’m about to say, only much more succinctly. “I’m not one to let Microsoft off the hook, but I want to know what is different about Vista – not what makes it a copycat of OS X. I have to use both OSes.”


Now, I’m all for comparing Vista to OS X, because for the individual consumer, there is a choice. Apple hardware owners can even dual-boot Windows on their own machine, so they could theoretically make an afternoon of trying a new Microsoft OS — and wind up choosing both. With millions upon millions of users, operating systems are some of the most important technology on the planet. They’re worth criticizing. And it’s about time someone pointed out the real advantage of the Mac is its operating system, which often offers reliability and features well beyond Windows. That’s not just because Windows is “bigger” or more “backwards-compatible” and these features are impossible. For music, Core Audio and Core MIDI offer superior compatibility and performance versus Windows XP. The fact that XP is a usable OS and a favorite for many musicians suggests to me that Microsoft could and should compete with these features.

The only problem is, I’ve heard primarily two criticisms of Vista, and neither seems fair:

1. You’ll need to buy a new computer.
2. Microsoft copied everything from the Mac.

As near as I can tell, both of these arguments are based on incorrect assumptions about the OS, and both are largely superficial issues that fail to speak to the fundamental issues users do need to know when upgrading to the new OS. The latest review comes from The New York Times’ David Pogue, accompanied by an over-the-top, snarky video in which he repeats Apple talking points from this year’s Developer Conference (the review itself is relatively fair, but gets needlessly smug when comparing to Mac and, ironically, misses some points for concern on Vista):

Vista Wins on Looks. As for Lacks …
New York Times Video: Windows Vista

In fairness, I’m not sure the alternative is much better. You’ve seen the pro-Vista articles, which tend to repeat feature lists without analysis. (I don’t think this is the PC press’ fault, necessarily; it may have more to do with print deadlines, the need to put Vista on the cover to sell magazines, and a lack of solid information to write about coming from PR. But that doesn’t make this much more helpful, of course.) I just wish we had a middle ground — somewhere between Vista press releases and pro-Mac Vista bashing.

I think part of what has held back broader adoption of the Mac platform is that Windows users (sometimes rightfully, sometimes not) feel insulted by the reviews they get from Mac users, and that could certainly happen here. But most importantly, I just have to disagree with David Pogue’s arguments here.

Did Microsoft copy Apple? Absolutely. Even Windows fans pointed out to Microsoft in beta builds that the new Calendar was copying iCal’s color scheme and layout, a superfluous act of plagiarism that just seemed silly. (The company later toned-down that design and made it more Vista-like.) In the case of other examples, the copying should be welcome, as in the case of feedback on the number of files being moved or copied.

But here’s the line I take issue with: “Now, before the hate-mail tsunami begins, it’s important to note that Apple has itself borrowed feature ideas on occasion, even from Windows. But never this broadly, boldly or blatantly.” This just doesn’t seem true.

To me, the most blatant, intentional copy of the Mac was Windows95; Vista borrows only minor details. Apple has copied alt-tab switching (both the shortcut and the on-screen feedback), the OS X-style window button layout, right-button contextual menus, some keyboard shortcuts, and various other features. And you know what? Quite frankly, I wish software companies would copy more; too often, they fail to learn from what their competitors are doing.

More to the point, a lot of what Pogue seems to think are Mac copies were actually developed first by other companies or have become so ubiquitous as to say they’re not really the exclusive domain of the Mac any longer:

  1. System-wide search and Spotlight: System-wide search is not a new idea, no matter how you slice it; nor is placing a search window in multiple windows. But Microsoft announced many of these features in early Longhorn presentations, long before Apple shipped Tiger. Microsoft is also arguably more committed to hierarchical navigation and file storage than Apple; Apple philosophically argued that search would replace traditional organization, which to me is a little extreme. Anyway, I think it would be more useful to point out that Apple shipped first, and arguably implemented the feature better, than to try to accuse Microsoft of plagiarizing. Apple could easily win this category, but not for the reason Pogue cites.
  2. Flip 3D and Expose: Give me a break. Look, the moment anyone is rendering the UI to a 3D interface, they’re going to be tempted to add 3D effects, period. Unless you can make the argument that Apple invented 3D (they didn’t) or mapping bitmaps to quads (they didn’t), this is just a waste of time. And Flip 3D, in which you flip through open windows in 3D space, is much closer to the traditional Windows alt-tab interface (which Apple copied from Microsoft) than it is from Expose. Anyway, I’m not a big fan of using these methods to find windows in the first place. The question reviewers should be asking is, does this even improve productivity in the first place? (And spinning your wheels repeating old Mac/Windows arguments definitely doesn’t do wonders for productivity, especially if the basis of those arguments is distorted.)
  3. Sidebar Widgets and Dashboard: This is almost not worth arguing, it’s been argued so many times before. Microsoft talked widgets, again, before Tiger, and Stardock ObjectDesktop and Konfabulator each had widgets long before either Microsoft or Apple caught on. Sometimes good ideas spread, which is good for users: remember Stickies in MacOS 7.5, copied from a shareware developer, copied from the ubiquitous 3M pieces of paper? Actually, probably you don’t remember, because we’ve moved onto better ideas and have better things to talk about. I rest my case.
  4. Folder navigation: Now things get even stranger. Another Pogue example of Microsoft copying Apple: “A list of favorite PC locations appears at the left side of every Explorer window, which you can customize just by dragging folders in or out. You now expand or collapse lists of folders by clicking little flippy triangles.” Wait a minute … hierarchical folder views with collapsible views. You mean, like the Folder View already in XP in the exact same location? And in thousands of Windows and Mac applications? And in DOS file managers dating back to the 1980s? And the old Mac operating system? If anything, Microsoft copied the triangle instead of the plus icon, but that’s been in so many pieces of software for so long, it hardly seems worth mentioning. (And, incidentally, it’s a good idea: they’re easier to see.)

Software historians I’m sure could clarify these points even further, and demonstrate that Be, Atari, or Amiga machines had them first. Bottom line, people think “Mac” because Vista looks less ugly than XP. Look beyond the surface, though, and Aero looks to me like a 3D, glassy, transparent implementation of the XP interface — for better or for worse. And neither Windows nor Mac has really changed the interface much beyond their 90s design. Some would argue that’s a bad thing, but in the meantime, most of us are happy to reap the performance benefits of running UIs in 3D instead of 2D pixel buffers (as XP does) and to keep, you know, using our computers — not staring at the UI.

Speaking of the new UI, let’s dispense with this “you need a new computer to run Vista theory.” Generally speaking, upgrading older computers to run newer operating systems is always a decent rule of thumb. But early reports indicate an ideal Vista system would have a graphics card with 256MB of VRAM, a reasonably fast single or (better) dual-core processor, and 2GB of RAM. Funny, because that’s exactly the same specs I’d suggest for a PC or Mac to run music apps on older OSes. Non-issue.

Why am I so frustrated with these arguments? Because they miss out on significant issues on Vista that are specific to individual markets (this is you, digital musicians), and that largely have gone unanswered. For consumers, I’d like a better examination of hardware compatibility, performance, and functionality. But for us musicians in particular, there are a number of areas of concern, any one of which is far more important than arguing old, superficial “Mac vs. PC UI” points:

  1. Vista activation procedures: Microsoft has backed off of some of the more unpleasant Vista ownership requirements, but even in XP, having to regularly prove you have a real, unpirated version of the OS is a pain. What will this really be like under Vista?
  2. Audio DRM: One of the more disturbing features of Vista locks off some audio streams, so you can’t rip audio from copy-protected video and music. It’s not yet clear whether this will impact legitimate inter-app audio functionality in pro audio software.
  3. Driver signing requirements: Vista wants all audio and MIDI drivers to be “signed”, or validated by Microsoft for compatibility with the OS. Apparently, you can get past this requirement by entering an admin password, but only on the 32-bit OS — the 64-bit OS won’t even allow unsigned drivers installed by an admin account. What will validation cost hardware developers? What happens to legacy drivers that aren’t updated? What about open source, free, shareware, and independent development efforts? MIDI-Yoke, for instance, was developed by an independent developer, and it’s the only way of routing MIDI between music applications (a feature that’s been on the Mac in some form for many, many years). Will these requirements help in any way, or will they just break our hardware with no real benefit and send us screaming back to XP?
  4. Old driver and application compatibility: With many minor changes in Vista, it’s hard to even keep track of this, but we just don’t know what will run and what won’t — all the reason to expect a truly final review won’t be possible for some months.
  5. Device compatibility and legacy XP issues: XP is full of small but problematic issues with installing drivers, particularly over USB, like arbitrary Registry issues that cause drivers to refuse to install or stop working. What’s been fixed in Vista, and what remains?
  6. Performance and reasons to upgrade: Many musicians are concerned that Vista simply offers no compelling reason to upgrade: a new audio system is good news, but it may not work with pro apps, meaning there’s little pay-off for the compatibility cost involved in upgrading from XP.

Quite frankly, I just don’t know what the answer to these questions is. And I need to find out. So instead of writing premature reviews of Vista, I’m going to do my best to find as much actual information as I possibly can. And instead of trying to convince Windows users to switch to Mac, or Mac users to switch to Windows, I’m going to assume you can make some of those decisions for yourself. We have musicians using Mac, we have musicians using Windows, and we have musicians using Linux. My hope is that all of you can make great music with the platform you’ve chosen. I’m sure some of you XP users won’t switch to Vista; I’ll just do my best to make sure your decision is well-informed. Those of you making music on Be, Amiga, Atari, Mac OS 9, Commodore 64, home-built circuits — more power to you.

Here’s my question for you: for those of you considering running Vista — even if it’s just as a secondary OS on your proud, Apple logo-bearing MacBook — what do you want to learn?

I hope to, within the very near future, make good on my promise to test the OS so you don’t have to. So please feel free to keep sharing what you know, and for those of you staying away from the new release, what you want to know.

(Oh, and if anyone does want to do the Vista vs. BeOS shootout, I’m game! That’ll be more interesting.)

MOTU Releases Audio Drivers for Vista/XP; Vista Driver Changes in Store
Vista Audio Improvement Details — For Consumers, At Least (lots of useful comments there, as well — more useful, in fact, than what I originally wrote!)