Microsoft starting to take an Apple approach to design

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The world is dichotomous. You have good and evil, light and dark, rich and poor, vanilla and chocolate, French and American, Christian and Muslim, sausage and bacon, MIT and CMU. However, one of the most high-profile of these comparisons has been getting more and more interesting in recent years: Apple and Microsoft.

Since Steve Jobs regained the helm of Apple Computer in 1997, the company has been at the forefront of what?s ?cool? in technology. The recent iPod explosion has, of course, amplified this trend. Apple?s retail stores, open in au courant malls and shopping districts worldwide, are drawing in thousands of customers a day. A number of respected publications, including The New York Times, referred to the brand new, ultra-small iPod nano as ?sexy.? Apple has become a household name and is making the best of its iPod halo by converting more and more users to Macs ? an initiative it is leveraging due to increased customer dissatisfaction with poor, hobbled-by-viruses-and-spyware Windows machines.

The tides are slowly changing, though. While there seems to be no end in sight for Apple?s hipster-powered rise into pop-culture awareness, Microsoft is slowly stirring. The Redmond behemoth has gained a reputation for being a ?big, evil business,? after numorous anti-trust cases, security nightmares, and stability problems with poorly-maintained Windows installations. Somewhere around 95 percent of the computer-using world uses Windows for everyday computing. Internet Explorer sucks compared to the ultimate underdog, Mozilla Firefox. And Microsoft would strongly prefer you use Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office, and a plethora of other products in one big happy software bloatfest.

Steve Jobs and the rest of Apple have been relentlessly teasing Gates and company for years, thanks to the feature gap between Apple?s Mac OS X and Windows XP. Apple has released a new version of OS X every year or so, and each revision brings big new features ? and they really began attracting attention with 10.3 (Panther), a fully matured and very original operating system. Their most recent release, 10.4 (Tiger), garnered a good deal of attention, too, in part thanks to Microsoft?s long-delayed next-generation Windows platform ? Windows Vista (nee Longhorn).

Microsoft seems to be perennially playing catch-up with Apple; however, the gap is rapidly narrowing. Microsoft is doing what they do best: taking ideas and improving on them relentlessly. Vista will use many of the same design paradigms as
OS X, including a graphically intensive user interface (offloaded to the video card, of course), a robust command line interface, a more advanced and flexible file system, and search features rivaling Apple?s new Spotlight technology.

More importantly, though, Microsoft is adding to its new operating system media features that will be standard with the operating system, giving it capabilities right out of the box that Mac users would have to download third-party programs and use third-party hardware to accomplish. What?s this? Microsoft?s letting its users do something out of the box that Apple doesn?t? Preposterous.

Integration has always been one of Apple?s strong points. Since the company handles every level of its computers, from design, to manufacture, all the way up through the software you use to interact with them, it?s easy for them to create machines that ?just work? without much fuss. The Windows world has been almost the polar opposite, becoming a cauldron of drivers, bloated software, background processes run amok, and gargantuan system trays.

However, Microsoft is slowly learning the power of integration. Their Exchange Server system allows a whole network of computers to interact with the same mail and files everywhere, allowing roaming profiles for corporate employees. Windows Media Center ? essentially a PC hooked up to your television ? has all the important features you?d need built right in to the operating system.

Microsoft is going after the heart of what makes Apple, Apple ? eccentric corporate figures and a killer ?cool? factor. The Xbox 360, Microsoft?s next-generation game console, was announced in May to large fanfare on MTV. James Allard, the head of the Xbox 360 project who refers to himself as ?J?, is the same sort of over-the-top theatrically nerd-chic salesman that Jobs is. Immediately, it was clear that Microsoft was going for the trendy market presence that Apple had nailed so easily with the iPod. Microsoft even got the color right ? the console is a soothing off-white hue.

Microsoft is pulling out all the stops for their Xbox 360 initiative. Rumor has it that they?re opening retail shops to house the 360, its games, and peripherals, including one in the extremely high-profile Times Square in New York City. More than that, though, is an integrated hardware and software approach to the device. ?It just works? has long been Apple?s slogan; now Microsoft is taking it seriously too. Here?s hoping it?ll pay off, and Microsoft will let this new philosophy trickle down into other areas of its business.

Sure, Windows is still full of security holes, and Internet Explorer is a pile of stagnant features. But really, they?re not doing too badly. Windows XP is far more stable than people give it credit for, and Vista looks to be full of very promising and very modern technology. The Xbox program has rocketed to success in four years and the next generation is poised to make a serious splash.

So, enough with all the Microsoft hating. Yeah, it?s cool to laugh at one of the world?s largest corporations, and they?ve had some ups and downs in the past; but they learn from their mistakes better than most companies. And that?s finally starting to show.