Microsoft and Apple Taking Different Roads to the Same Future

Long-time readers of Windows IT Pro UPDATE will recall my simplistic mantra about the future of computing: It's highly mobile and highly connected. But recent moves from the leading OS vendors suggest that this isn't just a pat saying. Instead, both Microsoft and Apple agree on this one thing: It's a strategy.
What's interesting is that these two companies have chosen to arrive at the same destination by going in separate directions.
Microsoft, the more well-understood of the two strategically, is busy working to get Windows 8 out the door, and the next milestone of that OS, the so-called Consumer Preview, is due next week. With Windows 8, Microsoft is using a touch-centric UI called Metro across all its major platforms -- including Windows client, of course, but also Windows Server, Windows Phone, and the Xbox -- providing them with a sense of cohesiveness and single user experience identity.
Technically, of course, these platforms are still somewhat separate, but with NT guru Dave Cutler working on Xbox vNext, as I discussed last week in " With WOA, It's Windows NT All Over Again," one naturally wonders whether the major dissimilarities are coming to an end. (The merging of Windows and Windows Phone will pretty much be finalized in the Windows 8 wave, as I discussed in " Windows Phone in 2012.")
But honestly, the technical similarities between these systems (or lack thereof) are almost incidental. And that's because regardless of the underpinnings, these systems will all look and work similarly. The Metro UI came first not from Windows but from Windows Phone, and although it will be overhauled as needed to meet the needs of desktop Windows somewhat, it's a mobile user experience at heart. It begs to be touched and will work best with mobile devices, such as tablets and laptops, and their unholy offspring, touch-capable hybrid laptops.
Conceptually, the interesting thing about Windows 8 is that Microsoft has evolved its desktop toolset in very minor ways but has made major changes that reflect a growing market for highly mobile, general-purpose computing devices. (Read: Things that look like but are in fact not iPads.) This is a big bet, and the hope is that consumers who are excited by Windows 8 on iPad-like slate devices will then want Windows Phones as well. I believe this will be a big deal, but that’s for the future to decide.
Apple, meanwhile, surprised everyone who's been paying attention to the company by announcing last week that it would rev its Mac OS X system by the end of the summer, less than a year after the previous release. That's amazing because the previous two OS X versions, called Snow Leopard and Lion, were both two years in the making.
Some believe, as I do, that the next OS X release, called Mountain Lion, is a reaction to Windows 8, at least from a timing perspective. (And kudos to Apple for almost certainly being able to beat Windows 8 to market.) But if you look at the Mountain Lion feature set, one thing is very obvious: Mountain Lion is a simple continuation of the iPad-ification of OS X that started in Lion. That is, it's the second straight OS X release that's focused almost solely on bringing iOS features to Apple's legacy desktop OS.
iOS, of course, is itself an offshoot of OS X, one that was originally designed specifically for the iPhone, the first iOS device and the one that kicked off Apple's current market dominance in highly mobile consumer electronics devices. (The iPod touch and iPad are very clearly just slightly modified versions of the iPhone.)
By bringing user experiences and features from the far more popular iOS to OS X, Apple hopes to further bolster a system that has performed strongly but has never broken the 5 percent market share ceiling worldwide. It makes sense. People love iOS devices, and if Apple can get them moved to the Mac, many will become Apple customers for life.
What's interesting, to me, is that Apple's strategy for arriving at this highly mobile, highly connected future relies on continuing to separately evolve two different OSs, iOS and OS X, while Microsoft seems intent on integrating its separate platforms into a single, Windows-based codebase. Windows everywhere, indeed.
Some guess that Apple will one day combine iOS and OS X into a single OS, and I find that future plausible. In fact, Microsoft's doing it right now with Windows 8. (And kudos to Microsoft for leading, for a change.) Whether Apple eventually goes down this path might depend, somewhat, on how consumers and business users react to having two discrete user experiences -- the touch-happy Metro and the legacy Windows desktop -- in Windows 8. I suspect we'll be able to start opining on that situation soon, with the Consumer Preview, but for now it's an open question.
Regardless of your PC platform of choice, one thing is clear. They're both about to be injected with a spate of mobility-inspired technologies and user experiences that will further blur the lines between what we think of today, separately, as PCs and devices. And although I feel this future is inevitable, there are apparently a few different ways to get there.

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