Lies, Damned Lies, and Bill Gates

In his interview with Bill Gates in Newsweek, Steven Levy pointed out that many of the new features in Windows Vista are similar to features already in Mac OS X. Gates’s response:

I mean, it’s fascinating, maybe we shouldn’t have showed so publicly the stuff we were doing, because we knew how long the new security base was going to take us to get done. Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine. So, yes, it took us longer, and they had what we were doing, user interface-wise.

This is fascinating. In Gates’s view, Microsoft came up with these features, Apple copied them, and Apple got them into their shipping product first because Microsoft was spending so much time improving Vista’s security. Uh-huh.

Gates’s claim about Mac OS X security is simply false. Flabbergastingly false. It’s irritating that Levy didn’t press him on this point, to ask for a few examples. Perhaps Gates’s “every single day” claim is a reference to the Month of Apple Bugs project, of which only one published exploit, the first, could allow something this serious to happen without action by the user (i.e. by double-clicking an unknown download you didn’t ask for) — and Apple released a security update to fix it on January 23.

I’m not aware of a single exploit in the wild that allows a stock Mac OS X 10.4 box to be “taken over”. Not one. (I’m also not aware of any for Vista, either.1)

It’s either an angry, slanderous lie, or Bill Gates is an uninformed jackass.

Most of you reading Daring Fireball know these are silly statements that are obviously false. But what is the typical Newsweek reader to think of them — especially given that they stand unchallenged by Levy?


The hilarity continues. Gates added:

Let’s be realistic, who came up with [the] file, edit, view, help [menu bar]? Do you want to go back to the original Mac and think about where those interface concepts came from?

I’ve never been one to belabor these accusations that Microsoft has ripped off the Mac UI. In fact, I’ve always thought that the problem with Windows is that it isn’t enough like the Mac, especially back in the early ’90s, when the Sculley-era Apple filed its ill-advised and ill-fated “look and feel” lawsuit against Microsoft. The point of Apple’s lawsuit, more or less, was that any user interface based on windows, icons, pull-down menus, and mouse cursors was an illegal copyright violation of the Mac. Many Mac users shared the same sentiment; that any computer UI that wasn’t character-based was a rip-off of the Mac.

That was a terrible strategy for Apple; they lost that lawsuit, and they deserved to.2 Windows, icons, menus — these are just ideas, and no one deserves to own ideas. Here’s what Steve Jobs told Daniel Morrow in a 1995 interview (emphasis added):

I remember being at Xerox at 1979. It was one of those sort of apocalyptic moments. I remember within ten minutes of seeing the graphical user interface stuff, just knowing that every computer would work this way some day; it was so obvious once you saw it. It didn’t require tremendous intellect. It was so clear.

What Apple needed to do was work on maintaining the Mac’s lead as the best GUI; instead they attempted to protect their supposed right to be the only GUI.

Apple didn’t invent the idea of the graphical user interface. They invented the first commercial implentation of that idea. Yes, Apple took ideas from Xerox, but they did not copy Xerox’s implementation. Here’s a link to some screenshots of the Xerox Star UI; see for yourself. Likewise, Microsoft took many ideas from the Mac when creating Windows (far more than Apple took from Xerox), but they didn’t copy the implementation. And, yes, eventually ideas from Windows made their way to the Mac (e.g., Alt-Tab switching).

So I can see why Gates gets prickly about this. But regarding this particular accusation — that of the menu bar and standard File, Edit, View, etc. menus — let’s take his challenge and “go back to the original Mac and think about where those interface concepts came from”. Here’s what Bruce Horn, who designed and implemented the original Finder, wrote regarding the accusation that the Macintosh UI came from Xerox:

The Lisa group invented some fundamental concepts as well: pull down menus, the imaging and windowing models based on QuickDraw, the clipboard, and cleanly internationalizable software.

Smalltalk had a three-button mouse and pop-up menus, in contrast to the Mac’s menu bar and one-button mouse. Smalltalk didn’t even have self-repairing windows — you had to click in them to get them to repaint, and programs couldn’t draw into partially obscured windows.

In other words, the File, Edit, and View menus came from Apple.3

Vista is no more of a dastardly rip-off of the Mac OS than previous versions of Windows were. But it’s true that Apple beat Microsoft to market with many of these features by several years. Judging by the internal emails from Microsoft coming out of the Iowa anti-trust case, however, it really does seem like Microsoft’s executives believe that Apple is taking ideas from Microsoft.

That seems to be their way of dealing with the fact that Apple is implementing and shipping major new features in Mac OS X far more quickly than Microsoft has been able to do with Windows. I.e., in Microsoft’s view, it’s not that Vista now offers features that appeared in Mac OS X in 2003; it’s that Mac OS X has features that Microsoft talked about in 2001. Spotlight, in this view, is a rip-off of WinFS — even though WinFS didn’t even actually make it into Vista.


  1. George Ou is investigating the possibility of using Vista’s speech recognition as an exploit vector. I.e. imagine a web site that played an MP3 with instructions telling your computer to move documents to the trash and then empty the trash. Clever, really. But speech recognition is off by default in Vista, and it remains to be seen whether this is really a practical problem. (If it is, I wonder whether it might not be similarly applicable to Mac OS X.) 

  2. One reason they lost is that they allowed Microsoft to slip a loophole into a contract both companies agreed to, which loophole more or less explicitly granted Microsoft the right to use these UI concepts in Windows. But I’m saying Apple deserved to lose this case on merit, because Windows has never been a clone of the Mac OS, and no company deserves the right to “own” the basic concept of a GUI. 

  3. Windows might deserve credit for the Help menu, though. 

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