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Microsoft, Android & iOS: the UI debate

Microsoft announced details of improvements in Windows Explorer in their upcoming Windows 8 release. Tech blogs have called it plain ugly – labeling its interpretation of ‘No Compromise’ as the definition of compromise. Sure that TechCrunch piece is from M G Siegler – known to be an Apple fanboy. But even Microsoft fans like Paul Thurrot has called the UI, ugly. Not surprisingly, comments over at these forums are from two groups (a) Mac fanboys pointing fingers and laughing (b) Microsoft defenders calling it just another Mac fanboy rant – though they too agre that the UI is not great.

As an Apple fan – but not a Microsoft or Android hater, I feel great about preferring the Mac/iOS environments to work on. Not simply because I think that the Mac UI is much more elegant and pleasing to the eye. But because I genuinely believe in Steve Jobs’ statement:

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

When working on the Mac, I feel (biased perhaps) that multi-tasking and switching between programs is much easier. It is not just about the design. There are several small details – icon design for example which you fail to notice at first go but adds to the overall impact.

On the issue of UI and ‘design’, I feel Apple appeals to a certain mindset compared to its competition. Apple believes in simplicity & minimalism. Most others seem to believe in ‘more is good’ philosophy. No wonder that in the Windows environment, skinning & theming is so popular. Do you remember Winamp and its plain ugly interface? There were 1000s of skins available to personalize it and make it look funkier. Ditto with VLC. Ditto with Windows XP, Vista and Win 7. It’s almost as if you want to hide the original looks and are desperate to make it look better. Same is the case with Google Chrome, Firefox and Opera – themes & skins abound. Some of them even emulate the Mac UI. But on the Mac that kind of frenzy to change the looks is rare.

Even with applications on the Windows environment, ugly rules. You just need to look at the Google Reader UI or the FeedDemon interface to see what I mean. On the other hand, very rarely do software developers thrust something inelegant on to the Mac environment. It is assumed that a good, elegant UI is a pre-requisite on the Mac.

But going beyond looks, is the point about unification. I noticed something interesting the other day. My 6-year old daughter saw me operate the ‘rotation lock’ on the iPad. Next, she had figured that it works the same way on the iPhone. The reason: seamless unification of design in iOS. Ditto with finding her way through apps on both the devices – the similarity of design & function simply works. In advertising we say that the story or the product differentiator must be understood even by a 4-year old. That kind of simplicity is what makes even toddlers take to the iPhone & iPad easily.

On Android, the interface has definitely improved over the years. But fragmentation of hardware is something they are grappling with still. I am told that the Honeycomb version of Android is specially made for tablets. So if someone has an Android tablet and an Android smartphone (running say, Gingerbread or lower) the UI and they way the apps behave is likely to be different? Apple’s design philosophy on the iOS is the exact opposite.

All this is not to say that Apple never makes mistakes. They have their share of poor utility, poor UI products: LaunchPad, Stacks, Spotlight, Automator to name a few. But their ‘minimal is better’ approach combined with their obsession to detail is what gives them an aura.

However, there’s no convincing those who belong to either of the camps about the benefits of competition. The fanboy debates will continue.

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