The Microsoft years – don’t be mad John

Business / Design / Musings / User Experience

On episode 125 of ATP, John Siracusa was goaded into spelling out his hatred of Microsoft, where as a young Mac enthusiast he felt Microsoft unjustly “won” the personal computing market.

This was very interesting for me to hear as I had never really given it much thought. At that time in the mid 90s I was a Windows user because, pre-OS X, only crazy musicians or designers used Macs. Until Windows 95 came out, MacOS was arguably aesthetically better than Windows but was soon technically and visually crushed by Win95.

The real shame is that Microsoft lacked and still lacks taste and design skills in many areas. That created a lost 20 year period in software design progress for everybody.

Why? Well it resulted in otherwise good people like me creating horrific app UIs like this:

(Sadly that was a pretty good UI for the time)

If Apple had instead “won” in the mid-90s we’d probably have developed the design sensibilities we have now a full 20 years earlier. Can you imagine the impact this could have had on humanity? We’re at the “computing for everyone” junction now, twenty years later than we might have and we’re seeing a crazy explosion in usability and relevance for the average person. Of course hardware advances in the interim play a part in this too, but great design is always great design.

Of course it is ironic that Apple didn’t seem able to create a new OS with pre-emptive multi-tasking or proper virtual address spaces for processes, and it was stuck in a hardware incompatibility ghetto. At the time, to developers MacOS looked more like PalmOS than Win32 and COM APIs (which were horrible, just in case you think I’m a fan, and I liked the danger of PalmOS coding).

So it seems, at least in this universe, that Microsoft did curse us with 20 years of user interface design dark ages. And yet without their overtaking of Apple technically in the 90s with the jump from Windows 3.x to Windows 95, we probably wouldn’t have the great iOS and Mac tech we have today.

Without this pressure, which exacerbated their financial decline, Apple may not have been desperate enough to open the door again to Steve Jobs and NeXT to get their hands on a real modern operating system core and the amazingly talented team that came with it. This single act transformed Apple into the commercial, design, aesthetic and technical giant it is today.

I would love us to be 20 years ahead of where we are today, who wouldn’t? Yet ironically I think we need to be thankful that Microsoft succeeded and yet sucked enough to force Apple to up their game and make OS X, and from that iOS.

Perhaps in a few years Microsoft enthusiasts will be thankful Apple’s dominance in tech forced pushed them onto the ropes to force them to make some big changes.

The Author

Marc Palmer (Twitter, Mastodon) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He currently works on the iOS team of Concepts sketching app, as well as his own apps like video subtitle app Captionista. He created the Flint open source framework. He can also do a pretty good job of designing app products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's really embarrassing. You can find out more here.