There Are No Design Leaders in the PC World

Robert Cringley's 1995 documentary Triumph of the Nerds: An Irreverent History of the PC Industry features dozens of fascinating interviews with icons of the software industry. It included this brief interview segment with Steve Jobs, where he said the following:


This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/01/there-are-no-design-leaders-in-the-pc-world.html

Truth be told, Apple is the design leader in the PC world. Ignoring the pedantic argument that “PC stands for personal computer and Macs are the most personal computers therefore Macs are PCs more than any other computers”, a Mac is PC even in the “Intel-powered box that runs Windows” sense. All you need is Boot Camp, or a hypothetical future version of Windows that installs natively on a Mac. Apple shipping its PCs with an OS that isn’t Windows is the only distinction.

And I find it amusing that the Asus screenshot has a Macintosh SE (not SE/30—you can tell by the length of the label on the front bezel) in the lower-left corner.

I’m not so sure there are no design leaders in the PC world. Adobe products are nicely designed and have definitely been thought leaders for a lot of other products. Intuit’s products are very easy to use and nice looking, too (not a coincidence).

Well, if you’re just trying to avoid beige boxes, there’s always Alienware. http://www.alienware.com/

You’re right though, there’s an awful lot of clumsy, ungraceful, inelegant grey and beige hardware and software out there.

Substance without style is certainly dull and unattractive, but when I look at Macs I see entirely too much style without substance. I’m far from saying Windows is perfect (far far FAR!) but I think MS put a lot more effort into usability testing than Apple do, and it shows. Compare the one-button mouse with the mouse wheel, or the taskbar with the dock, or the Zune with the iPod – uh, no, forget that last one, it’s a typo. IN GENERAL I think MS win out with substance. Not all the time, obviously, but more than the Apple fanboys would like to admit.

rousing round of applause

I completely agree, there is very little sexy in the PC world. For example even though I find the iPhone to be over-rated and to have a huge number of flaws it is still a wonderfully designed bit of tech. When searching for a laptop I was very tempted to just buy a MacBook and use BootCamp but a few usability issues prevented me.

It amazes me that PC makers still don’t really get how important “beauty” can be in a product. If everyone just looked at performance and specs there would only be a two or three cars on the road. A few try, and Sony is probably the closest you’re going to get to a company trying to be a design leader, but it’s still more a niche concept to make a good looking case.

Peter-
That’s awesome. I love it!

Jeff-
I never even remotely bought that comment about proportional fonts in the UI that Jobs made. It would have eventually happened. WYSIWYG is a natural paradigm that MS would have eventually copied from Xerox themselves, and proportional fonts are a natural extension of that. The Xerox Star had them, and that’s what Apple was copying when they created the Lisa/Mac interface (http://members.dcn.org/dwnelson/XeroxStarRetrospective.html). Then again, look at UNIX. 30-ish years old and “backspace” still doesn’t seemlessly work all of the time.

I sort of wonder when Steve became so design-obsessed. I wonder if that very mentality, too, was strongly influenced by Xerox.

That being said, I must say that “design” goes well beyond just the aesthetics of the case. Other design decisions can be just as important. For example, I love my Dimension 9200 case. Totally tool-free. Little convenient clips and levers everywhere. Clip in, clip out drives, cards, you name it. On a Mac? Please. On the Mac Mini, you literally need a putty knife to open the case.

Ole, I’m not sure I agree with that. Pretty much every major version of Acrobat Reader is more painful to use than the last, what with random ads for Yahoo, Photoshop Album Elements Light Trial Demo Edition, slower startup despite newer hardware, and random crashes when embedded in either Opera or Firefox.

Couple of comments. First, apparently most people are ok with functional designs, coz that’s what most people work with. People are free to buy Apple computers, and many do, but for many more – many, many more – the beauty of the design is secondary to other considerations. Price, for (very important) starters. Interoperability with software or hardware. Damn job makes 'em use the gray box. Whatever. We would all love to drive Porsches, but most of us drive Toyotas. (Substitute brands as appropriate.)

Second: one wonders what will happen when Jobs is no longer around to bend the universe to his will. An article in Time about the iPhone noted that Jobs had to convince a carrier (Cingular in this case) to change its own technology to accommodate the new phone. Not so many people combine Jobs’s mania for aesthetics with his, um, gift for getting others to implement his vision.

This stems from the very top. That being Gates and Ballmer for Microsoft. If it’s not in the nature, character, then it won’t flow down to the employees.

Just look at the Ballmer (Monkey Man) “Developers!” footage. Raving lunatic, sweaty arm pits. And Bill Gates, what’s the line about him, he doesn’t go anywhere without his dandruf? :slight_smile:

“but I think MS put a lot more effort into usability testing than Apple do, and it shows”

You’re kidding right? MS software is easier to use? Not in this universe. If you’re confused and are thinking about letting something be configurable up the whazoo, then sure. MS provide the registry for you to fiddle with. Whereas Apple stuff “just works”. Simple as that.

“I never even remotely bought that comment about proportional fonts in the UI that Jobs made. It would have eventually happened.”

That is true. But I don’t think it would have been from MS. They weren’t there to copy it from Xerox. Like a lot of things that MS does, it would have taken someone else to do it (or copy it in this case) and then MS would catch on. Like Steve says, Gates has no sense of style and it shows.

I tend to agree that Apple IS the Design Leader. A PC is a PC, no matter what’s under the hood. Time was, once upon a 1982, that the term “Personal Computer” was synonymous with a Macintosh. It was Apple who drove the distinction between the two, and it’s Apple that’s erasing that gulf. They’re just a really high-end computer with a different OS, these days. No different than any other rig out there if you know what you’re doing.

It’s just that Apple is no longer a computer company, solely…

Time was, once upon a 1982, that the term “Personal Computer” was synonymous with a Macintosh.

I don’t think so. The Mac was introduced in 1984.

Truth is that design doesn’t matter, to a poitn design matters because it needs to be usable but other than that pretty designs are irrelevant.

The fact that steve jobs say that Microsoft earned their success but still says they make third rate products is ridicolous, they are successfull because usability trumps design all the time.

And there are plenty of nice looking PC cases, you’ll have to ask Dell and all those “manufacturers” why they don’t use them but I do when I build my own computers, I have never bought a computer from Dell and the likes and I never will.

“The one button mouse? Well I’m not sure if you knew this, but all of Apple’s desktop systems now come with a 4 button mouse with a scroll ball. And you can use any $15 mouse you want with Mac OS X, even scrolling works. Dunno where that idea came from.”

Yup… they do now but until recently usability has been hindered by the design aesthetic…

fanboyism indeed

My first thoughts when I saw the iPhone: “Why in the heck didn’t Microsoft create as good an interface for their Zune?”

Apple is a much smaller company and has fewer resources. The XBox people were building the Zune. Yet, all they could come up with was an iPod copy – and not even a very good one at that.

“Squirting pictures and songs” was an interesting concept, but very poorly executed and awfully name. The Zune is bigger and heavier than the iPod and just doesn’t look as good. They even copied the iPod scroll wheel even though it’s just four buttons and not a scroll wheel.

Twelve years later, Job’s criticism of Microsoft still holds true. They have no concept of design.

I try to keep familiar with the Apple Human Interface Guidelines and apply them in windows/web development where I see fit:

http://developer.apple.com/documentation/UserExperience/Conceptual/OSXHIGuidelines/XHIGIntro/chapter_1_section_1.html

I’d like to see MS bake guidance like this into their designers.

Apple computers generally don’t sit under the desk: with the exception of the Mac Pro and perhaps the Mini, all current models are all-in-one units (the iMac and the various laptops). So the aesthetics of the box actually matter.

The oven argument: some people buy Agas. Expensive, but solid, decent looking, with their own subculture (really!), designed with an attention to detail and a unique aesthetic. It also heats your house. These are the oven counterpart to the Apple computer, representing a small segment of the high end of the market, with a loyal following. Some products are intended for commercial use, but the home market is the primary one.

Apple doesn’t give a stuff about the majority of businesses. Creative industries, yes; science and education, yes; development houses for the Apple platform, yes. It’s all about doing new, exciting things in cool and elegant ways. If you work in some cube farm, you are inherently not doing this: instead, your days are devoted to boring, repetitive tasks, filling out forms, maintaining payroll databases, fretting about whether you’re enterprise-y enough, going to meetings where nothing of substance is decided or communicated, and ultimately leading a gray, soulless life. On your tombstone these words will appear: “He attained his corporate objectives”. Nobody cares. If you’re not out to change the world (not your department’s sales report query system - the world) Apple isn’t interested. Instead of complaining about how the iPhone doesn’t easily let you email under the table at a meeting (http://paul.kedrosky.com/archives/2007/01/10/the_five_bigges.html), change your company’s culture and practices so that you’re not having that kind of meeting (that goes on too long, with too many people, who would all rather be doing their email). If you can’t do that, find (or found) a new company. That’s the ideal, according to the Apple image. The point is that if you look at their stuff from a conventional business perspective, it won’t be very attractive, because that’s not the market they’re aiming for. They are selling to people who want to buy cool stuff. This is why they try to make their products cool.

Eric - I think the majority of people would say that a MacOS is easier to use.
As for the one button mouse, that didn’t go without its usability testing. The whole concept was for usability - it may surprise you but a lot of people get confused with two button mice (let alone these 20 button monstrosities). There’s a reason why people end up labelling the right button “wrong click”, because its hardly ever used for ordinary people. However, they did underestimate the just how much variety more advanced users would need in their clicking. Less to do with aesthetics, more to do with misguided usability.
mac_man25 - The taskbar isn’t to show every window open - it is meant to show open programs, or main task orientated windows at least. It just gets abused.

The thing I’m saddest that Microsoft never copied off Apple is combo-box dropdown behavior. It’s somewhat pitiful how much faster it can be to change settings or navigate a nested menu on a Mac - twenty years ago! - and I’m no big fan of Macs in general, until recently.

The Xbox is a good example of how Microsoft designs - start ugly and polish it up over time. Apple is just the opposite, start pretty and shoehorn functionality in over time. They both just have the bad habit of occasionally taking it to extremes, but at the same time both get it right in many ways that it’s convenient to ignore. Going back to Classic Mac OS or Win 3.1 genuinely hurts, and even System 7 and Win 98 make me wonder how I survived without XP, let alone OSX.

I guess I’m part of the faux-style PC crowd, with my Acer laptop, viewsonic screen, fake vista theme for xp, aqua-ish theme for firefox, and so on. I’ll take what style I can get, as long as I don’t have to pay more for it. =p