In Apple, Microsoft OSes, search is on

Companies' new operating systems--Tiger and Longhorn--bear a resemblance. But just who copied whom? Photo: OSes go head to head

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

Do you have any idea where you saved your last file?

Both Microsoft and Apple Computer are betting the answer is no. And as a result their newest operating systems bear uncannily like-minded search tools.


What's new:
As more details emerge about Longhorn, Microsoft's next version of Windows, similarities can be seen between it and Apple's Mac OS X.

Bottom line:
Both Longhorn and Tiger, the newest version of OS X, are focusing heavily on desktop search, which users will employ to find documents stored on their hard drive. Other likenesses between the new Windows and various versions of OS X include see-through windows and similar icons. As to who stole whose search idea, both companies are doing their fair share of finger-pointing.

More stories on Longhorn and Tiger

In the next version of Windows, still in its early stages of development, and in the soon-to-be released new version of Mac OS X, users won't have to know where a file is stored. Instead, both operating systems will have a search window in which people need only start typing what they remember--who created the file, what it's called, or even words within the document itself. Results begin appearing instantly, and the early matches are ruled out as a user continues entering information.

"Clearly both companies understand that the classic desktop metaphor, which is 20 years old, really doesn't scale well when you have lots of information," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said.

And judging from other similarities, that's not the only understanding the companies share.

The Longhorn preview Microsoft gave reporters last week revealed that with the new OS, the software giant is introducing composited graphics for the desktop, something Apple has had since Mac OS X's debut. The result is that Longhorn's windows can be see-through, revealing the contents of other windows or the desktop below.

"You can imagine videos on top of videos and even translucency," said Jim Allchin, head of Microsoft's Windows unit.

In one application of the new technology, windows that are maximized or minimized spring to life in a way similar to the "genie effect" through which Mac OS X windows are sent down to the Dock.


Microsoft also plans to reshape icons within Longhorn. Instead of being a static graphic indicating the type of document a file is, an icon in Longhorn will be a smaller representation of the first page of a document. In its preview pane, today's Mac OS offers that for some document types, such as PDF files. However, its implementation is not as universal as what Microsoft is proposing.

Both Apple and Microsoft are responding to a clear need for more effective searching of the information on a computer's hard drive, a system that will simplify things in much the same way improved Web search has made it easy to find information on the Internet. So far that need for desktop search has been filled by programs that run on top of Windows, offered by companies including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's own MSN unit.

Though search has been at the top of both companies' lists for a while, the similarity of the two approaches is remarkable. Both companies' OSes have a search window, identified by a magnifying glass icon, in the upper right-hand corner. Users of Tiger--the new Mac OS--can save a search query as a "smart folder," while Microsoft has its yet-to-be-finally-named "virtual folders" that offer a similar function.

Allchin said Microsoft plans to go further than Apple has with Tiger.

"Tiger is nice in that they've put search capability in a lot of places, but there's a lot more (in Longhorn)," Allchin said. "This is trying to slice and dice the data and let you visualize the data in a much richer way than what's in Tiger."

Both companies also say they want their search features to be a starting point, with developers able to add to them. With both Tiger and Longhorn, developers will be able to make various types of data available

for searching. Ken Bereskin, Apple's senior director of Mac OS X marketing, said Apple also makes the code for Spotlight available to developers so they can add such searching directly into their applications.

I was here first
As to who stole whose idea, both companies are doing their fair share of finger-pointing.

Apple has been taunting Microsoft since it first showed Tiger last year, plastering its developer conference with posters trumpeting phrases such as "This should keep Redmond busy" and "Introducing Longhorn."

Allchin rejects the notion that Microsoft is a Tiger copycat, noting that the company demonstrated some of the virtual folder concepts in its Fall 2003 preview of Longhorn.

"They just might have copied us," Allchin said.

But Apple loyalists will certainly note that the search technology that powers the Spotlight search feature has been a staple of Mac applications for some time, beginning with iTunes, which debuted in January 2001.

"That was the spark of inspiration that led us to say, What if we brought that to the entire system?" said Bereskin.

Allchin does give Apple credit.

"Ever since (CEO) Steve (Jobs) has come back to Apple, they've been on my radar screen," Allchin said. "I think it's just good competition."

At the same time, he noted that the Mac's growth pales in comparison to the number of Windows users added each year. "Our growth this year in PCs is bigger than the entire Mac install base," Allchin said. And he added that much of the growth Apple has seen has come on the music side. The Mac, he said, "is now a peripheral to the iPod."

But similarities--and the issue of who copied whom--aside, there's a key difference between Tiger and Longhorn.

Apple is coming out with Tiger in two weeks; Microsoft hopes to have Longhorn out by the second half of next year.

Apple is "first out of the box," Jupiter's Gartenberg said. "We have to give credit where credit is due."