Blog: Secrets from the Chef

Showing your cards, or why Windows is not MacOS

Yegor GilyovAuthor: Yegor Gilyov
1 June 2007

For many Mac OS X users Expose is the most favorite interface feature. And deservedly so, since it is very efficient and convenient for toggling between windows.

Illustration by Eugene Artsebasov

No wonder that Expose is often presented as a key advantage of Mac OS interface over Windows. “Ha-ha, looks as though Redmond tried to copy Expose but tripped over the limited capacity of its graphical engine,” some may quip. “They must be afraid of being accused of direct plagiarism,” others say. Is that so? Let’s try to investigate.

It’s easy to realize that we are not talking about technical restrictions here. For instance, back in 2004 Microsoft unveiled the prototype of Scalable Fabric. This exciting technology works in a different way than Expose but it is also based on smooth window animation. Anyway, it is obvious that Expose is hardly more complex than Scalable Fabric in implementation.

So, maybe those who think that interface designers from Microsoft simply do not want some evil tongues to accuse them of copying Apple’s interface solutions are right? It sounds somewhat true-to-life. At SxSW2006 conference one former Microsoft designer admitted that this issue truly worried them. He also noted that by the time Expose was released, Microsoft had very similar prototypes. It is quite believable. Maybe he was talking about Scalable Fabric? Possibly, however I would not say that this prototype closely resembles Expose.

So, why those prototypes have not been used? Only due to Apple’s priority? Is it true that they have suffered the fate of the Soviet moon expedition, curtailed shortly after the successful lunar touchdown of the Americans? Hardly. If everyone was convinced in the importance of this functionally in Windows, just like Mac addicts are about Expose in OS X, such considerations would not have stopped Microsoft. Nothing has stopped the spreading of the concept of overlapping windows (by the way, it was not originally conceived by Apple). In a less distant past nothing had stopped the appearance of similarly looking instant search technologies (and again, despite the common misunderstanding, Apple is not the one to be credited for it).

This drives me to the conclusion that functionality of Expose was regarded unimportant for Windows users. “Suit yourself,” says Microsoft and includes a fancy but useless Flip 3D feature into Windows Vista:

Flip 3D

One special feature of Windows interface which makes the hypothetical Expose-for-Windows much less effective than the original function of Mac OS X is the full-screen operating mode. Expose does not randomly scatter the windows across the screen: relative sizes of windows are kept in proportion and the location of the window being downsized is defined by its location before calling Expose. For instance, if some window is located in the right-top corner of the screen, after calling Expose we will likely see its downsized thumbnail around the same place:

Expose

Expose

Such behavior coupled with smooth animation significantly simplifies the search for the needed window by the user. But what happens if the main applications work in full-screen mode? Relative size and location of windows stop being the attributes for locating the downsized windows, since all windows share the same size while being superimposed. Smooth animation loses its sense, while remaining just a fancy visual effect.

It appears to me that this was likely the course of thinking of Microsoft designers that lead them to the idea of abolishing Expose-like-techniques. Nonetheless, Expose-like solutions can be traced in Windows Vista not only in the shape of decorative Flip 3D function. First, I’d like to point at intelliPoint function (pardon the redundancy) called Instant Viewer. It looks like Expose but features no animation and does not keep the window proportions:

Instant Viewer

In Internet Explorer 7 there is a similar feature that shows thumbnails of web pages opened in various tabs. There is a plug-in for Firefox adding similar functionality. I think Safari could benefit from the same thing since it features tabs.

A small company Otaku Software verifies the correctness of Microsoft’s decision not to implement “real” Expose by releasing TopDesk utility. So it goes, errors of big developers are being corrected by small developers. For example, Mac OS X does not feature an uninstaller, hence there is AppZapper. Finder is not working properly, hence comes PathFinder. So, if Expose was really that essential for Windows users TopDesk would become as widely popular as Google Desktop, for instance. But we see it did not happen. I have tried TopDesk but due to the reasons listed above did not stick to it like I stuck to Expose.

As we say: what is good for a Russian may kill a German. Good interface solutions do not always get ported from one environment to another.

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