A Mac fan takes on Vista

Earlier this month, when I found I could install Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1) on my MacBook Pro, I quickly took the plunge, practically chortling at the thought that my dual-core laptop could run Microsoft's next operating system. What better way to show that when you buy a Mac you get two computers in one?

I've been using Vista off and on for a couple of weeks now, but I'm not chortling as much.

The MacBook Pro is fine. Yes, it runs hotter than normal on Vista and battery life is greatly reduced. That's no surprise. Vista isn't exactly optimized for Mac use, and the drivers that Apple supplies with its Boot Camp software don't work in Microsoft's upcoming OS. (I had to install a small third-party app, Apple Mouse, to enable a right-click function in Vista on the Macbook Pro.) I'm assuming that by the time Vista is out, Apple will be ready. And with the exception of a few such glitches along the way, Vista RC1 (Build 5600) has been generally stable: No blue screens of death, no untoward infections that I'm aware of. A lot of applications I use regularly -- the Firefox browser, iTunes, Quicktime -- work just fine in Vista.

But how is it to use? One of the first things a longtime Mac user will notice about Windows is the look. This isn't your father's (or mother's) Windows. It's superficially Mac-like -- as if Microsoft, rather than coming up with a more original look for its OS -- decided to offer its take on Mac OS X's interface.

Apple's UI is called Aqua. Microsoft calls its interface Aero. Hmmmm.

If you're familiar with Apple's bright white-and-turquoise look, you'll notice similarities. The open-close-resize buttons for windows in Vista light up when the mouse cursor hovers over them, for instance. When a user account control (UAC) warning pops up -- and it will, often -- a taskbar icon sometimes flashes with a soft, shiny orange glow to get your attention. Desktop icons are more photorealistic and scale nicely. You can dial up or down the transparency of windows, which is cool, though not especially useful. There's even a "sidebar" that, while it functions differently than OS X's dock, looks similar at first glance. (The little apps that run in the sidebar in Vista are called "gadgets;" the little apps that run as part of Expose in OS X are "widgets.")

Aqua and Aero. Gadgets and widgets. What's that line about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

I know it's a two-way street. Mac OS X users can now alt-tab their way through open applications just as quickly as Windows users. Thanks, Apple, for taking an extremely useful feature from Windows and incorporating it into OS X. And that dock I mentioned? It offers a lot of the functions of the Windows taskbar. But taking a feature or two and building it into an OS isn't the same as copying the overall look and feel of a competitor's software. What's next: Sony trying to devise a laptop that looks like a Macbook? The result of Microsoft's lengthy development effort is a glassy, glossy version of Windows with eye-catching bling, yielding a shimmering look that I actually like. I should. I've been using something like it on Mac OS X for five years.

Note to Microsoft GUI gurus: Take a look at the latest version of Apple's iTunes software, the recently-released Version 7. Gloss and shine are out, the 3-D sandblasted look is in. From what I've seen so far, Mac OS X 10.5, or Leopard, still looks pretty much like the current OS X 10.4 -- at least according to the developer preview Apple released selectively last month. But I'm really hoping that one of the tricks Apple CEO Steve Jobs has up his sleeve is a plan to make the entire OS look like the interface used in iTunes 7. We'll know in a few months.

Perhaps most annoying is the fact that millions of Windows users will be delighted by the new look of Windows when it's released next year, blissfully unaware that Mac users have enjoyed bling for years.

They'll also likely be delighted by the fact that Microsoft has slammed the door on some of the more glaring security holes that have plagued XP users for years. The inclusion of Windows Defender to help keep malware at bay will be welcomed by users. But I doubt they'll be nearly as content with the way Vista constantly reminds you that you're safe. I'm talking here, of course, about UAC, which a number of Vista reviewers, including Computerworld's own Scot Finnie have already criticized for its intrusiveness.

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