When Titans Collide

Written by Brett Thomas

May 31, 2006 // 2:51 p.m.

Tags: #apple #microsoft

I love it when Microsoft makes an announcement on Vista, or Apple an announcement on the new Macintels. It always brings out the rabid fanboys, swinging their OSX vs. Windows clubs. A flame war almost always ensues, and by the end of it someone is so hot and bothered that he or she questions Bill Gates's parentage or the sexual preference of Steve Jobs. The person arguing the other side is often seen as a direct mouthpiece of the opposing corporation, and many attempts are made to burn the person at the stake for heresy. Ah, how I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

True followers of the computer industry know that there is no time for idle allegiances. In the pursuit of faster, better, or more efficient computing, we must simply evaluate each new technology on its own, regardless of its corporation of origin. Such silly "knowledge" does not appease the fanboy, though. My, how I'll miss them when they're gone. Yes, that's right... I think there will be a time (perhaps in a not-too-distant future) where they will disappear. Because I believe that Microsoft and Apple should push themselves towards a meshing of their operating systems. And before you all grab the pitchforks and light the torches to hunt this blasphemer down, I'm going to tell you why.

"True followers of the computer industry know that there is no time for idle allegiances"

Some say that the best OS is simple and stable under any circumstance. Others say it needs to be able to extend to take on any hardware or software they want to throw at it. These two are mutually exclusive. By the laws of entropy, the more components you have in a system, the more chances there are for chaos, and therefore instability. This outlines one of the two most basic differences between Windows and Mac-OS right now - system control.

Ever wonder why Apple sells only specific systems with limited hardware (and charges a fortune for the privilege)? It's because, by limiting component upgradeability and variability, you limit the amount of drivers that must run at any time, and eliminate drivers that are not specific to a particular device. Ask any Linux lover what makes The Penguin so stable, and they'll mention that they can specifically tailor all running drivers to their hardware, and they never have to run a single driver they don't need. But for those who want that stability in a readily commercial form, the system hardware must be the thing that is limited, so the user doesn't have to go picking their specific driver from 15 million options.

On the other hand, Windows is designed to handle anything that you throw at it, and many of those things (via USB) are thrown at it while the OS is already booted and running. This means having generic drivers galore, along with multiple background programs that are unnecessary 95% of the time. But they must be there, so that during that other 5% when someone plugs in that device, it's up and running with no effort on the user's part. Each of these drivers adds one more layer of instability, but one more layer of ease-of-adaptation.

The other big thing people mention when asked about a good OS is its ease of use - organization both on the screen and in the storage. People want to be able to access what they need quickly and efficiently, and the process should preferably be fairly intuitive. Good looking is a plus, but most people just want it to function well for their needs.

For this point, we'll talk a little bit about file structure (or lack of). Most Windows fanboys won't have ever thought this through, but the visible representation of file structure in Windows is archaic. The visual organization of data involves copious moving of files between folders, directory trees, etc. This was fine back in the days of fully text-based navigation (a la DOS), but is clunky with a GUI. For instance, if you want to find a particular program and create a quick access, you have to hunt through layers of directories, then drag and drop a shortcut onto your desktop. If you move the file or directory, the shortcut becomes invalid. In fact, if the program puts some type of key in the registry for any purpose, the whole program may no longer work, requiring reinstallation.

Mac-OS, however, is based on Unix. "Directory" structures in any 'nix are unnecessary, as the OS organizes data in the form of a relational database, "mounting" huge chunks of data and querying it. Think of one table that contains all the characteristics to every file on your drive, and then think of being able to create infinite queries, permanent or temporary, to organize that data any way you need. No moving, no drag and drop for organization. It's all there, you simply make a new "path", provide the terms of what files should be accessed through it, et voilá.
This is the premise behind the Mac-OS "Smart folder," where one can simply request a folder containing all music files, and it's automatically done. Buy a new music file, and the query will automatically include it the next time you open that folder. "My Documents" doesn't stand a chance against such ease of use. The problem with this is that it can be particularly CPU and HDD intensive, particularly when it's re-queried so often.

So, there are just two huge differences between Windows and Mac-OS. Now, why do I think they should merge? It's smart business. Each has something the other wants and they're just now starting to wade into each other's territory. They are about to find out exactly how much greener the grass is on the other side, and for the first time ever, they'll have the technology to work with each other's strengths.

Apple has, for the first time, come off of completely proprietary hardware. The step to Intel-based machines was a defining point for the company, but it also shows the limitations of such a constrictive OS design. People are going to start asking questions as to why, if it's got the same thing under the hood as a normal PC, they cannot put in a new NVIDIA 7900GTX for better graphics. Or, perhaps, what about that $45 DVD-RW they saw at Best Buy? Why not switch the processor up to something more powerful when Conroe comes out? Those questions are already starting to be asked, and Apple will be forced to start either writing more drivers, or losing its clients.

"One of the big efforts of Vista was supposed to be a new file structure that functioned more like a Unix system"

On the flip-side, we can see exactly how much more Microsoft is paying attention to Mac-OS. One of the big efforts of Vista was supposed to be a new file structure that functioned more like a Unix system... but what an effort they are expending as they attempt to reinvent the wheel! It hasn't worked, as it requires a strong conversion from the basic file-handling principles Windows was designed around. It was such a conceptual enigma to MS that it had to be cut from Vista, even though it was one of the biggest milestones that should have been present in the new OS.

While these two companies are fumbling around in the dark to try and imitate what the other side perfected long ago, technology continues to increase at a rapid rate. CPU speed is increasing tremendously, and HDDs are now capable of perpendicular storage (increasing both size and speed). We are moving towards an era where two gigabytes of RAM will be mainstream. That's plenty of RAM for multiple, more specific drivers, and plenty of speed to support a database file structure. Code efficiency is no longer such a requirement due to sheer horsepower, and can finally take a back seat to user efficiency.

But if both sides waste tons of money attempting to duplicate the other side's strengths, they'll end up with the same thing: an OS that is both extendable and friendly to use, with only the particulars of the GUI 'eye candy' to separate them. They'll each spend copious cash to end up with a product that can barely be differentiated from its competitor. Fortunately, they won't be the first companies in this type of position, in fact, the business world has a very convenient way to avoid all of this: the merger. By combining, they can utilize each other's knowledge without burning money away on research, and can instead funnel that into lacing the two OS's together well and adding yet more additional features, like a more customizable "desktop" layout that doesn't require three tons of third party software.

Of course, all this does little for rabid fanboys, as Win-OSXII is going to be without large scale competition (except from the penguin-heads). I guess they’ll just have to find a new thing to argue about, like Intel vs. AMD or NVIDIA vs. ATI. Ah, well.
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