I just read two interesting articles contrasting the two approaches that Microsoft and Apple have at designing user interfaces. The author makes the point that Microsoft has innovated much more than Apple in graphic user interfaces, and more in general than people care to admit.

The article focuses on the task-based aspect of Windows XP and Longhorn, and Paul Thurott makes some very good points. Here are some other interesting innovations that Microsoft made since Windows 95, off the top of my head:

  • Flat toolbar buttons. Nobody notices them any more because they have become mainstream, but if you remember, toolbars used to have the standard 3D buttons when they started getting popular. The Microsoft usability labs then noticed that the extra border of the buttons made the UI look more cluttered, something that users confirmed. So they got rid of the extruded border and added a “colorization” when the user hovers on them. It was a bold move back then but who would be confused by a flat button these days?
  • The tooltipped thumb in scrollbars. I think this first appeared in PowerPoint, was quickly adopted by Acrobat Reader and then spread to the whole Office suite. The idea is that when you use the scrollbar to move quickly through a large document, you don’t have a very good idea on what page you are going to land on when you stop moving the thumb. The idea was to create a tooltip that would stay persistent (as opposed to regular tooltips which usually disappear after a couple of seconds) and update it to the page number as you scroll. I am pretty sure hardly anyone ever noticed this but it added a great deal of usability.
  • The wheel mouse. Not really a software GUI innovation per se, but definitely something that radically changed the way we use a mouse.

I am sure there are a lot more. The bottom line is certainly not that Microsoft has innovated more than Apple but that we should be giving credit where credit is due. Especially when the said company is a monopoly and has little incentive to innovate at all. Or so we would think.