The One Thing Windows Vista Did Right

The One Thing Windows Vista Did Right
Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty

Vista was bad. Coming five years after XP, it was heavily anticipated by Windows users who were impatiently awaiting something interesting from Microsoft as Apple’s star was on the rise. Yet when the OS dropped publicly in January 2007, it was immediately reviled by, well, everyone (except our expert reviewers).

It was slower than XP, had annoying DRM that grossly restricted what people could do and removed a ton of features people liked. It is not hyperbole to say it might be the most hated software product Microsoft has ever produced — impressive for the company that gave us Internet Explorer and Clippy. But Vista did one thing very, very right and 11 years later, it’s never been more in fashion.

So what was Vista actually prescient about? Translucent design elements.

All the way back in Vista, Microsoft introduced Aero, a design language intended to be a futuristic update to XP. Aero’s most eye-catching feature was the Glass theme, which could make elements throughout the UI transparent. When it was released, it didn’t get more than a passing nod from reviewers who noted it was slick if somewhat irrelevant to the actual performance of the OS.

Aero lasted through Windows 7 — Microsoft’s most critically lauded OS until Windows 10. Then in Windows 8, Microsoft introduced a new design language: Metro. Metro actually kicked off another major trend in user interface design: flat design elements. But it still maintained some of the cool translucent effects introduced in Aero.

Those translucent effects were carried over to Windows 10 and are easily seen in Edge, the Start menu and the Notifications panel. They’re so popular, some Windows 10 users are even hacking the OS to add translucency and transparency to everything else!

ImageThe effect is super noticeable in the start menu. (Screenshot: Windows 10)

The trend isn’t reserved to Windows. Apple seems to have been inspired, too. That’s because UI designers, like everyone else, are subject to trends. Once upon a time, everyone tried to make their app icons and buttons look rounded because of iOS.

Then, after Windows and Android embraced a flatter look, iOS followed suit with iOS 7 in 2013. It also began sprinkling that sweet, sweet translucent design throughout.

ImageLook at these pretty menus! (Screenshot: macOS Mojave)

The translucent elements first appeared in Mac OS X Leopard 10.5 as an option to turn the menu bar translucent. That was in November 2007, nearly a year after Vista launched. Apple seriously began showing off translucent elements when iOS 7 added translucent menus and notifications in 2013. MacOS 10.10 Yosemite began embracing translucency a year later.

Since then, both Apple operating systems have added more and more translucent elements. The most recent additions come courtesy of the betas for macOS Mojave and iOS 12. That’s because both are adding dark translucent elements, which seem to highlight the translucency effect even more.

It is reminiscent of glass that’s been frosted and tinted. It’s very attractive. Sometimes I get distracted into marvelling at it instead of doing work.

I mean just look at it in Safari!

ImageGIF: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

It’s so good, I find myself using Safari instead of Chrome just so I can watch stuff I’m scrolling through turn blurry as it hits the browser frame.

The transparent elements, while not as ubiquitous in iOS, are still present there too — particularly in the iOS 12 beta, which has done away with the garish white panels in the notification centre and embraced a dark and translucent look.

ImageScreenshot: iOS 12 Beta

Since Microsoft introduced Aero in 2007, the transparent elements of the Windows UI have evolved and been refined from an operating system’s splashy party trick to an elegant element you might not even notice. Apple has embraced the trend and even Android is now flirting with translucency.

Since Android Oreo was released last year, more and more translucent design elements have appeared throughout Android. It’s especially noticeable in the beta for Android P, the next version of Android expected later this year.

ImageFrom left to right: The Notification menu in Android P. Top view of open apps in Android P. The notification menu on a Samsung Galaxy S9. (Screenshot: Android)

Google’s Android, like Apple, is embracing the trend begun with Vista. Which means, yeah, one of the touchstone design ideas in operating systems and apps today didn’t come from Microsoft’s best operating system. It came from its worst.


  • One of many cool design trends that either originated or got a bump start from Microsoft – but hardly something I’d say they “got right”.

    The top tip given to Vista users circa 2007 was to disable the Aero theme. Why? Because performance in Vista was just plain awful, and this was a small yet reliable and consistent way of giving it a boost.

    Like most things in Vista, and like many things that come out of Microsoft, great idea (groundbreaking or revolutionary in some cases – not this one), but half baked and not ready for prime time. Consequently a competitor picks it up a decade later, takes it to great success, and gets lauded as inspirational, revolutionary, or trend-setting.

    This article serves as a nice reminder that Microsoft came up with a lot of the cool stuff we take for granted now. Perhaps they need to learn not to give away all their cool ideas until they’re ready to take them to market in a complete and marketable fashion.

  • I despise the “flat design” of Windows 10. And too many windows and other elements are ‘borderless” so you can’t tell where one ends and another begins. I hate trying to resize a lot of elements because there is literally no visual cue to tell you where the border is any more. That’s horrible design.

    I’m really frustrated that way back there was a move towards easy and powerful user customisation and it just never truly materialised. We get little hints towards it, but it’s a pain in the butt trying to truly customise Windows appearance. The default windows install lets me… pick and accent colour and that’s about it. Sure themes exist, but it should be possible to do more in the standard personalisation UI.

    And dammit, where are my Wobbly Windows for Windows?!

  • So what was Vista actually prescient about? Translucent design elements.Saying Aero was just about making things pretty also misses the point of what Aero – actually the Desktop Window Manager – was really about. By using DirectX to draw application windows, hardware acceleration could be used for more than just games. One of the reasons people complained it was slower is that they probably didn’t have a 3D card fast enough to support it properly.

    I was going to write about some of the other things Vista got right that are still a core part of what makes Windows 10 what it is today…

    But fuck it. They’re all here:

    I remember the days of DLL Hell and constant driver and compatibility problems and I’m glad Vista came along to save us from all that. It was also required at the time to support the move from 32- to 64-bit Windows and the emerging online connectedness of everything Windows related and the security implications of that.

    Also…It is not hyperbole to say it might be the most hated software product Microsoft has ever producedYes, it is.

      • Microsoft Bob was unanimously criticised. Microsoft is probably still grateful it was released at a time before the entire world was online, and they can pretend it never happened.
        Clippy never had too many fans either.

        (my comment there was a reaction to every second Allure article claiming something is the best, or worst, or funniest, or saddest, or most amazeballs, thing EVER!1!!)

        • Fair enough in regard to your comment in relation to hyperbole. I do however, think they’re probably right in this case though.

          Largely because even though Clippy and Bob weren’t hits they were minor and could be turned off easily (Clippy) or avoided entirely (Bob). In contrast Vista was pretty much unavoidable if you wanted a new Windows. Not to mention Bob looked like ass before you even got around to buying it so most people probably didn’t fork out their money only to be disappointed with performance. I think for people to truly hate something they need to have bought and used it.

    • Agree with you about that. A laptop I bought about that time came with Vista meaning it had enough power to run it (1gb) and it was the most reliable OS I’d used. A friend who upgraded to V complained about it but had only half a gig. When he added another half he stopped complaining. I went to 7 which offered only a slight performance addition when measured, but lost my TV tuner which didn’t upgrade. Since then a newer laptop came with 8 (now 8.1) and with touch screen its been perfectly fine. The TV tuner never did work again, though. I did like the aero window change display, but since it used extra graphics ram I did a screen grab of it to use as a lock screen just to keep it around.

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