SxSW: OSX and Longhorn Development

by March 15, 2006

The SxSW2006 Behind the Scenes: Developing OS X and Longhorn panel explored the differences between Apple and Microsoft’s new operating system development process from a design perspective. Both of the panelists lead the design of each operating system and are now at Frog Design.

Apple’s OSX Process

  • The original goal for OSX was not to change user interface. Apple had acquired Next and OS 8 was on its last legs, they needed stability and had a short timeline.
  • Once into the process, the team realized they could get only 95% of the way to replicating OS8 and that Next had some great features that would be lost.
  • The design team started exploring what it would be like to start from scratch and worked after hours on conceptual pieces (translucency, animation, visual design).
  • At a two-day offsite discussing OSX development plans, the design team was asked to show their concepts as an inspiration piece.
  • They were the last speaker to talk and showed animation, new visual design, 32-bit color, alpha channels, and Quicktime in the OS. Everyone in the room laughed. They had enough work to do without ANY UI changes.
  • 2 weeks later, Steve Jobs called them OS design team into a meeting. At the time Jobs had no formal title, but he was talking to teams and cutting projects.
  • The meeting with Jobs began with Steve calling them amateurs. He hated OS8 and thought they weren’t doing anything worthwhile.
  • As the conversation progressed, the design team eventually talked about what we wanted to do and showed some ideas from their concepts. Jobs told them to them to prototype it. They worked day and night and built a demo that included the dock, animation, visual design, video player, and CD player (the start of Apple’s digital hub strategy).
  • They spent a whole afternoon walking Jobs through the design. From that point on there was no doubt they would change the UI for OSX.
  • For the next one and a half years the design team had weekly meetings with Steve. What he liked went in. What he didn't like had to be redone.
  • During that time, Steve was still not an official employee -he didn’t even have a badge.

Microsoft’s Longhorn Process

  • Began with Neptune -a whole new UI interface model. The concept was to imagine Windows as a big web site (1998).
  • The development team felt they couldn’t build the Neptune system, so XP (the next Windows release) became the "what can we do now" OS.
  • When XP shipped, the team started the Longhorn project.
  • Longhorn really focused on how services will be a part of windows. It was supposed to be a 12-18 month release. In 2003, this version of Longhorn had gadgets and the sidebar.
  • At that point large virus and security problems plagued Windows XP. The entire organization started working on security. That turned into a two year effort.
  • This two years of focusing on security became a big window of opportunity for designers & researchers. They refocused Longhorn on storage features like virtual file systems and virtual storage. They also began to explore new way to render graphics through Avalon (a new rendering engine). A key driver for these changes was things like the number of JPG images on an average system going from 1,000 to 10,000.
  • The team still considered Longhorn the short-term release and the upcoming Blackthorn the full release with all the new UI features.
  • The team showed a lot of stuff that looked done in 2003. It was just to gather early feedback but people wanted it they assumed it was ready. (oh the power of mockups).
  • Executives at Microsoft don't consider themselves to be UI designers; they consider others to be the experts. As a result, they are not as involved in nuanced design reviews.

What were you trying to accomplish?

  • Apple: we were targeting newer users (never used before; coming from other platforms). It was about simplifying the UI. A lot of junk had accumulated over the years: 7-8 ways to manage windows, etc. The team came up with the column browser and moved things into the dock, which got a lot of criticism when first released.
  • Apple: developed in intense secrecy. Only handful of people got to see it in the company. OSX really took people by surprise. Apple has a policy not to show anything until it is ready to ship.
  • Microsoft: We were really worried about copying Apple (OSX shipped first). How much is industry momentum vs. copying? There are some things that are just right. "Attention to detail" is a good thing. Good-looking icons are a good thing. Good designers come to the same conclusions.
  • Microsoft: When Apple’s Expose shipped, Microsoft had prototypes of very similar functionality at that time. Similar technology advances drove designers to the same conclusions.

Different Design Principles

Apple has been criticized for hiding too many features and actions from users. Microsoft has been called out for making things too complicated: too many options at once. What drives these differences?

  • Apple: We focus on key things that people want to do. What’s used most frequently or is most important? Do not let edge cases get in way of major tasks. This makes it harder to do some less important things. We had a good sense of our audience and what they are trying to do so we were able to prioritize.
  • Microsoft: Windows is definitely “wordier”. It spells things out a bit more. The Mac is beautiful if you want to do one or two things. Windows pulls all the drawers out at once and asks: "what do you want"?
  • Apple: The login screen shakes if you enter an incorrect name but has no error message or text.
  • Microsoft: "They're Mac users they'll blame themselves."

Moving Away from a Windows GUI

  • Apple: When the original desktop GUI was invented at Xerox Parc, computers were used for creating content. Now they are more frequently used for consuming content for which windows don't work so well. We’ll see more single function or fewer function devices.
  • Microsoft: Media Center has a really different interface (no windows; no dialogs). Instead uses: buttons, one task per page, full pages, no dialogs –similar to the interface model on cell phones.
  • Apple: File Edit Menu is a vestiges of older times -not relevant anymore.


  • Do people read everything in the dialogs & screens? Is that why Windows is wordier? In many cases the dialog should have never have come up, an engineer couldn't make a decision and put the burden to do so on the user. People don't read- they scan.
  • Why is the dock centered? All of Apple’s design (packaging, marketing, etc.) was becoming symmetrical.
  • Color & Visual richness is making its way into the operating system –concepts coming from Web design.
  • To what extent did engineering vs. design drive development? Apple: definitely driven by design. Engineers would ask "please don't show this to Steve". Jobs compared pixel to pixel from Director prototype to OSX prototype, if it wasn’t right it had to be fixed.
  • Microsoft: more collaborative. Some ideas came from design some from development.
  • Apple: no user testing at all due to the secrecy of the project. This was not the way they had designed up to that point but for OSX they relied on senior designers instead. With the first release there were some things that would probably have gotten caught with testing.