Having been an exclusively Mac user most of my life, and having only recently (during the past few years) started dabbling in PC's and Windows, one of the most obvious differences between Mac OS and Windows is the amount of files in a Windows application folder. I'm curious why there's such a big difference? First of all, Mac applications are rarely in their own folders but exist mostly as single icons in the applications folder. A Windows application will be in the Programs Folder and each application has a folder containing, not only the application icon, but dozens, or more usually, hundreds of other files in the folder as well--to the point where it is often difficult to find the application icon amongst all its numerous compadres. Installation software, as well, is heavily crowded with files for Windows app installations. I'm talking about XP and earlier. I've not had a single experience with Vista yet, so don't know if things have changed with the new Windows. How much of this difference in apparent files amounts is simply in the user interface and how much is it in the architecture of the two OS's? Do Mac applications have a similar amount but they are either hidden or scattered about the system and library? If you took all the preferences and extensions and control panels, etc., associated with a Mac app, would they add up to a similar amount of files as in a Windows app folder--thereby, meaning the difference is mostly just in the user interface? It seems to me there's a more fundamental difference, and I also wonder if a Windows app with all those files at hand makes Windows software more accessible to the user, whether or not he/she's got a clue to what they are all about? Somehow, I'm expecting the term "global" to be part of the explanation. Thanks ahead for any time spent for my education here. I'd expect there are a few others as ignorant as myself, as well, who could fill a classroom.
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The files are hidden in bundles. Right click or Ctrl-click on an app icon and hit "Show Package Contents" then browse the files in the directories there. Also, Mac OS has large amounts of shared files in the various Library folders, both in your personal home folder and the system wide Library folder at the root level. The basic structure of the Mac OS GUI hides a lot of files from the user.
Why doesn't Microsoft create a similar GUI? Is there a rational reason? I'm guessing they don't expect most users will ever want to go into Program Folders, but even with installations there's this great clutter of files to have to wade through.
I think you answered your own question: if most users aren't going into the program files folder, then the GCoF (Great Clutter of Files ) isn't an issue. To reinforce this, by default XP even has the contents of the Program Files folder masked until you click a Show Files confirmation.
Both structures allow investigation of files, and in both it's usually unnecessary to do so. Windows places more of an emphasis on the Start menu, since that's what users are used to, while OS X still maintains the Applications folder for the same reasons.
You could look at it this way: the only difference between the two is the location of the alias. In Windows it's in the start menu, in OS X the launch alias is the actual program folder.
Before Mac OS X, my application could be contained within a single file. The problem with this was that the resources for the program file were stored in two "forks" of the file. In the past, I had program files corrupted by non-Mac systems that have no way of easily storing the resource fork. The mess of various resources were stored in the resource fork. Remove the resource fork and my application probably stops working.
In Mac OS X, my application is actually a folder with more folders and resources contained within those folders. It's a bit of a mess of various resources but it is mostly hidden. In the Finder, we see a single icon for the application.
I am not going to speak about Linux, but to say it is different again.
In Windows, yes it is a big mess of files and folders, and even registry entries and sometimes library dependencies that break. There are often "shortcuts" for the program file in a group in the start menu, on the desktop, in the system tray, and mayhaps other places.
Now, I can also create a Windows program where the entire program is contained within a single file because Windows programs can store that big mess of resources within the single program file just like the old Mac OS without the weird dual fork thing. I've been working on creating Windows programs that are simply a single file. Those crazy installers in Windows are usually single file programs. So on Windows, programs can be made to behave like on the Mac by encapsulating everything within a single file, but in practice this is usually not done.