Business-like, isn't he?




    One Thing Mac OS X Should Learn From Windows

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Low End Mac January 8 2007 Mac2Windows Column

    It's easy for Mac users to poke fun at Windows - the interface started life as an attempt to borrow from the Mac operating system, and paste windows, menus, and the like over top of the text-oriented, DOS-based PC. 1985's Windows 1.0 was ugly and awkward, and while Windows has evolved and become less ugly over the years, so has the Mac; Windows remains awkward by comparison.

    Windows 1.0
    Windows 1.0

    Recently, InformationWeek compared Microsoft's spanking new Windows Vista with the current (and soon to be replaced) Mac OS X 10.4 (see Mac OS X Shines In Comparison With Windows Vista). Author John C. Welch concludes that while Vista is better than Windows XP (and that may be all that matters for millions of Windows users), "Vista reeks of committee and design by massive consensus, while OS X shines from an intense focus on doing things in a simple, clear fashion and design for the user, not the programmer."

    While I agree with Welch overall, there are individual user interface areas where Windows is better than the Mac OS X. Here's a little experiment I carried out - see if you agree with my conclusion.

    To do it, you need access to an OS X Mac, a Windows system, and some way to read a folder on both of them. I used a USB flash drive (a.k.a. key drive, memory stick, thumb drive, etc. A a side issue: It would be nice for the user and manufacturer communities to agree on a single name for these handy devices). You could also use a CD-R disc or a shared network folder.

    I created a folder on the flash drive and called it Test 1. Inside the folder, I copied 3 files and renamed them '1", "2", and "3". I created a second folder named Test 2, and put in 3 files renamed "4", "5", and "6".

    Flash Drive folders

    I then copied the Test 2 folder to my Mac's desktop and renamed it "Test 1". I then dragged the original Test 1 folder from the flash drive to the Desktop. A warning popped up:

    Mac warning

    I clicked Replace... the result - files "4", "5", and "6" vanished, leaving files "1", "2", and "3" in their place. The erased files do not appear in the Trash; they're just gone.

    3 files disappeared

    I did the same thing with Windows. I used a copy of the new Windows Vista which I have installed on my Mac using a beta of the not-yet-released VMWare Fusion for Intel Macs - but you could use any version of Windows from Windows 95 up - your dialogue boxes would vary with your Windows version, but the results will be the same.

    As on the Mac, when I tried to copy the Test 1 folder onto a desktop that already had a Test 1 folder, a warning message popped up. But where the Mac's warning talked about replacing one folder with the other, the Windows warning talked about merging folders. It noted that if any of the contents had the same names, they would be replaced.

    Vista offers to merge

    As promised, it did just that. When it was done, all six files - three from each of the original folders - were in the single folder on the desktop, with no lost content.

    The merged folder contents

    (In fact, there were hidden files with the same name in each folder - Vista gave me a dialogue box asking me what do to, with options to keep only the old one, replace it with the new one, or rename one to eliminate the conflict).

    ...merging files of different names is much more sensible than the Mac's habit of making folder content disappear without a trace.
    Die-hard Mac zealots will no doubt point out that the Windows Vista dialogue boxes are big and clumsy, with pictures that really don't add any information, and much more wordy than the Mac equivalents. But as far as I'm concerned, in this situation, merging files of different names is much more sensible than the Mac's habit of making folder content disappear without a trace.

    This is not just a trivial example: I've lost files this way on my Mac.

    It's easy to point out examples where Microsoft has copied Apple user interface innovations (often badly). New York Times columnist David Pogue has posted a hilarious video titled "V for Vista" comparing Vista and OS X, for instance. But Apple has also imitated a number of interface ideas that started life in Windows. Much of Mac OS 8 consisted of bringing features to the Mac (such as desktop wallpaper) that were popularized in Windows 95, for example.

    With Apple's Mac OS X 10.5 due later this year, maybe the Mac will finally gain Windows' ability to merge folders rather than continue to overwrite files.

    This article gathered quite a few comments, most disagreeing with me that the Mac operating system could benefit from copying this Windows feature. Among the responses:

    • John Christie wrote:

       I ran that simple test by a couple of new students here (University
      Windows using ones at that) and they had a very hard time following
      the Windows way (and conveying to me exactly what was going on).  I
      showed them on a Mac and none of them accidentally erased files.  Two
      renamed the folder in order to copy it and one just copied the new
      files.  I think only very experienced Windows users would be default
      just click OK and lose files on the Mac.  As an experienced Windows
      user that's why you think the Mac way is worse, you've made that
      click by mistake before.  I think that any Windows user used to that
      would think it somewhat less inefficient to do it the Mac way.

      But, while it may seem straightforward for us this "feature" still
      smacks of being designed for programmers.  It infers an intent not
      obvious from the behaviour in the interface.  When I, as a relatively
      inexperienced computer user, want to put some files from one folder
      into another I then move or copy those files.  I do not try to copy
      the whole folder, that looks like I'm replacing it in the interface.
      When the interface tries to tell me I'm merging then I get confused
      because this isn't something nearly as straightforward to interpret.
      People tend to initially interpret these things as real files and
      folders.  If I want to move some files in my cabinet to another
      folder then I move those files.  If I want to move a whole folder of
      files I still move those files.  I would only remove the whole folder
      from its original location and move to a location where there was one
      identically named if I planned to rename or I wanted to replace.
      That's the behaviour the Mac faithfully replicates.

      Sorry, the Mac has this right for most users even if the Windows way
      is more efficient for a power user.
    • Dan Palka noted:

      I completely disagree that Mac OS X should "learn" this "feature"
      from Windows simply to ease confusion of Windows users who recently
      switch to Mac OS X.  The problem is, for decades Mac OS has worked
      this way, and I (and I'm sure millions) of Mac users fully expect a
      folder to be replaced with another folder of the same name that is
      dragged over it.  Why should we all have to relearn a feature we're
      already fully comfortable with?  I intentionally replace folders with
      the same names all the time.  It is simpler and makes more sense to
      have a folder replaced by another folder with the same name, just
      like a file would.  If you want to merge the files, what is so hard
      about selecting all (command + a) and dragging them to the new
      folder?  Wouldn't that be way easier than accidently merging folders
      and then having to tip-toe around files to select the individual ones
      you want to delete?

      Perhaps Apple could add an option (like a checkbox) in that dialog to
      merge instead of replace, but the default action on a Macintosh
      always was, and always should be to replace the folder entirely.

    • Michael Hamlin commented:

      read your short article "One Thing Mac OS X Should Learn from Windows" at

      i wanted to correct you and disagree as well.

      understandably, you are frustrated with the inconsistency in behavior
      between windows and mac.  if both were the same, you would never lose
      files, because you know what to expect.  and you may have a preference
      for "merge" rather than "replace" behavior, when copying a folder.  i
      have two points.

      First, I will make the argument for preferring the "replace" behavior.
       i regularly use windows machines at work, and I keep all my files on
      a file server.  however, one generally cannot open a file located
      directly on the server, or even when one can, it's a bad idea
      (performance, security, and reliability are my concerns).  therefore,
      i routinely copy the folder of materials i want to work on to my local
      machine, do my editing, and then copy the folder back.  in this case,
      the "replace" behavior is preferable.  when i rename files or folders,
      the renamed files get "merged" onto the originals and i have
      duplicates with sometimes similar names, or worse, with very different
      names, and the next time i look at that folder I may have no idea i've
      got new and old versions of something in the same place.  There is a
      good argument here against filenames as THE canonical identifying
      piece of meta-data for file systems.  I won't start the meta-data
      argument here.  But as it is, with the "merge" behavior, I generally
      copy individual files by hand to avoid these problems.  That is
      tedious, involving comparing dates on files.  yuck.

      Now where you've missed something in your article, which makes this
      whole thing much worse than you think.  Inconsistency between
      platforms is annoying but not surprising.  However, even on the
      windows platform alone, I think (you'll have to test this to confirm),
      there is inconsistency.  The behavior with file servers and removables
      is NOT the same as multiple locations on the hard drive of the local
      machine.  I have copied a folder from one location to another on a
      windows machine and had the contents of the target replaced, not
      merged.  Why is it different?  I don't know.  Perhaps there is a
      setting somewhere I don't know about.  Regardless, this inconsistency
      on windows is frustrating and really unexpected, much more likely to
      cause someone to lose their files.  You're writing about it, maybe you
      have time to check me and figure out what's going on.
    • Alberto Ripanucci noted:

      Once upon a time my Mac worked like that, may be better.
      For Mac OS Classic there was an utility suite, Speed Doubler from
      Connectix, that included a functionality similar to that in Vista.
      The best feature was smart replacing, that replaced older files with
      new ones on request.

      Connectix was acquired by Microsoft (for its VirtualPC).

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan