The Simple Versus the Complicated

February 8th, 2013

One of the criticisms often made of Windows-based PCs is that they can be very complicated to set up, once you get past the basics. In contrast, people who prefer Windows will remark that OS X just doesn’t offer the granular level of settings to which they are accustomed.

Now, depending on what you expect of a personal computer, not having a lot of options with which to configure your system may actually be a good thing. Assuming the standard setups accommodate your needs, you can just go about your business, free in the knowledge that you won’t be confounded with a problem that requires further adjustments to the OS.

But if you’re a power user, you may find Windows to be closer to your needs — except that OS X offers lots of extra configuration choices via the command line, in Terminal. That way you can see the underbelly of OS X and do all sorts of powerful things, but there won’t be a confirmation dialog. So you better do your research if you’re not accustomed to such things, or consider one of those utilities that puts a pretty graphical face upon those functions, and, one hopes, offers a Reset button to fix what might go wrong before it gets out of hand.

Now with Windows 8, it seems Microsoft may have tried to take simplicity in the wrong direction. Settings for Modern UI (formerly Metro) apps tend to be bare bones, often lacking important features. You want to be a power user, or you just want to get your work done without putting up with a new interface and new problems, you may be better off with Windows 7, and that’s what customers appear to be telling Microsoft. Windows 8 has really failed to boost PC sales, which continue to flag.

When it comes to the smartphone wars, it’s still all about the iOS and Android, but here the actual battle is closer to a Mac versus Windows confrontation when it comes to interface conventions. Android kinda, sorta looks like iOS, and that’s one of the reasons Apple has gone lawsuit crazy against Samsung and other companies building Android-powered handsets.

Put an iPhone next to, say, a Samsung Galaxy S3 and you can’t help but see the similarities when it comes to the icons and Home screen. Many of the touch-based functions are similar enough so you can use the skills you learned from one and apply it to the other. Unlocking the Samsung, however, involves swiping the screen, rather than sliding to unlock. That’s likely because Apple owns the rights to the latter. But either gets the job done.

When I say it’s a Mac versus Windows interface scheme revisited, consider that the iOS makes the settings simple, usually predictable, without loads of options with which to confuse the user. Surely this has complicated the task of book writers who want write treatises that promise to teach you to become an iPhone or iPad power user. You can get there yourself if you spend a little time playing with things, knowing that most of the changes you make are reversible and won’t mess you up — except for deleting something you didn’t want to delete, such as an email account.

With Android, let me remind you that each manufacturer will customize the OS for their particular needs, and the carrier is likely to do their share. At the end of the day, this means that your Android may not be the same as mine, and OS versions vary too. It’s not the same thing as the iOS, where new releases are installed by most users within days. On Android, it’s up to the handset maker and the carrier to work out the updates, and critical security fixes may take months to reach the end user.

My comments in this article are confined to the Galaxy S3, running Android Jelly Bean 4.1.1. There are later OS versions, but that’s what AT&T is pushing right now to that handset. In any case, as with Windows, the Android OS settings screens are far more involved, often with choices that may not seem to make a whole lot of sense.

With Android email, for example, there are nine sets of General preferences that supposedly apply to all email accounts. Not so bad, but, with a regular IMAP account, there are 18 different settings options, including the Incoming and Outgoing server settings, each of which carry their own choices. And these settings are separate for each account. Many, such as the number of recent messages to display, and whether images should be displayed with your message, would seem to be suited for a global preference. But that’s not the Android way.

Now having so many choices in Android land also can present you with organizational options that aren’t offered in the iOS, such as an alphabetical grid display ootion for your apps. That’s surely a great way to find the ones you want. You can also put apps in separate widgets to highlight a few that may have special priority. When all is said and done, you’ll also find that Android status messages are also remarkably Windows like in their execution.

Indeed, you have a reason to believe that, had Microsoft not decided to go with the tiled interface in Windows Phone, and if Google hadn’t gotten involved in building a mobile platform, something similar to Android might just have emerged from Redmond.

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