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Battle of the Betas: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion

Now that the main writing phase of Windows 8 Secrets is in the rearview mirror, I’m getting caught up on some technology topics I needed to temporarily put on hold in order to devote more time to writing. These include a ton of software development research related to Windows 8, Windows Phone, and Apple’s iOS, but also some general competitive analysis comparing Windows 8 with only real desktop alternative, OS X. The next version of this system, dubbed “Mountain Lion,” is currently in development and Apple is widely expected to deliver it to customers sometime this year.

So how does it stack up?

To be clear, Mountain Lion offers no competitive threat to Windows at all. OS X has never, and will never, achieve the level of success that Apple’s i-devices have, and Mountain Lion certainly won’t change that. No, what I’m talking about here is how Mountain Lion stacks up functionality to Windows 8 and, more specifically, how or whether Apple’s approach to embracing mobile technologies in a traditional PC operating system differs from Microsoft’s.

Certainly, the two approaches are very different from a high level.

Windows 8, in case you’ve missed it, embraces the Metro design principles that Microsoft previously realized fairly fully in Windows Phone. However, because of backwards compatibility reasons, Windows 8 also provides the old desktop environment from previous Windows versions and the two systems, Metro and desktop, exist side-by-side in the new OS, creating a somewhat tenuous and strange overall experience.

With Mountain Lion, Apple is integrating iOS-like features into its desktop OS, but is rewriting and recreating them within the confines of that more mature system. So Mountain Lion offers a more cohesive experience than does Windows 8—one environment (and one type of app), not two—while still providing tools that its iOS users will immediately recognize and understand.

This transition, on the Apple side, started with last year’s “Lion” release of OS X, which added a number of iOS-like features, not the least of which is support for multi-touch gestures. Now, you may be thinking, hey, Windows 8 has that too, but as per the theme here Apple is going in a completely different direction. In the Apple camp, multi-touch screens exist only in iOS, and not in OS X. Instead, OS X relies on indirect multi-touch via touchpads that are built into all Mac laptops and can be purchased separately for Apple’s desktop machines.

Rather than suggest that one approach is better than the other, I’ll posit that any modern operating system should support both touch methods—direct and indirect—and that neither Windows 8 nor OS X, natively, at least rises to that challenge. (I’ve seen reports that third parties are enabling OS X-like gesture support to Windows 8 through touchpads, but I’m referring of course to native OS capabilities here.) If anything, Microsoft’s approach is “purer” in the sense that touch works identically across its phone, tablet and PC platforms, whereas with Apple you see two completely different systems.

Both Windows 8 and OS X sport new support for full screen apps, though only OS X is adding this capability to its legacy desktop OS; with Windows 8, true full-screen apps are available only in Metro. That said, with OS X you have more choice, since power users can opt out of full screen mode and simply use windows apps as before. With Windows 8, Metro apps are always full screen, or nearly so. (I’m not sure what to think of “snap” mode, honestly. I bet few people ever use this.) In Mountain Lion, Apple is basically increasing the number of apps that work full screen.

It’s only a matter of time before someone compares the Windows 8 Start screen to Launchpad in OS X, the latter of which provides a full screen, iOS-like grid of icons for launching apps. That’s a bit of a stretch, however. In OS X, Launchpad is an alternative to the dock, almost an experiment, really, and you can safely ignore it you want; certainly, OS X does not boot into the Launchpad. In Windows 8, Microsoft hasn’t just taken the Start button (and menu) off the desktop, they’ve actually exorcised the code for these interfaces right out of the product so no enterprising third party can add them back. The Start screen may very well be an experiment, but it’s also unavoidable. And you cannot pin Metro-style apps to the taskbar. So you’ll be going back and forth between the Metro and desktop environments from time to time even if you intend to do otherwise.

Windows 8 Start screen

OS X Launchpad

Mountain Lion will offer a nice, pane-based Notification Center, similar to the one that Apple added recently to iOS. Windows 8, meanwhile, does allow apps to utilize a new system level notification capability—in fact, it’s not just “apps”: Office 15’s version of Outlook ties into this system, too, somehow—but doesn’t have a notification center of any kind. So if you miss a notification, it’s pretty much gone for good with the caveat that a well-made app will also include some kind of heads-up on its live tile. I find it interesting that the OS X Notification Center is a realization of the Longhorn Sidebar concept from a decade ago: This is exactly what we thought we’d get in Windows, but never did.

Mountain Lion's Notification Center

Apple is of course further integrating its excellent iCloud service into Mountain Lion. So as with Windows 8 and its Microsoft account integration, you can sign in once and have your mail, contacts, calendars, and so on populated across the relevant apps. As is so often the case, however, Apple takes things quite a bit further than does Microsoft: It also offers document sync, something we can only sort of do through the SkyDrive app for Windows.

After offering a decent iChat client in Mac OS X for several years, Apple is adding an OS X version of its Messages app to Mountain Lion. This app is analogous to Messaging in Windows 8 and lets you chat with people using the company’s instant messaging service on both Macs and i-devices; in Windows, Messenger works on Windows PCs and tablets and Windows Phones. Where Messages supports AIM, Jabber, Google Talk, and Yahoo! Messenger, Windows 8’s Messaging apps also supports Facebook Chat, which is arguably about a million times more useful. (Update: A reader notes that you can actually configure Messages to use Facebook via the Jabber protocol. Someone should alert Apple of this fact; the company doesn't mention this in their documentation or in the application itself or its help files.)

Windows 8 Messaging

Share is one of the big capabilities in Windows 8, a sort of “copy and paste on steroids” that lets any Metro-style app share information with any other Metro-style app that also utilizes the system-level Share contract. It’s not clear that Apple is adding the same platform level capability—i.e. something that third party developers can take advantage of in their own apps—but they are adding a new “Share sheet” to many of their own apps that looks and works like the similar button you see in many iOS apps. With this button, you can share things like web sites, photos, videos, and more, from apps like Safari, Notes, Reminders, Photo Booth, and iPhoto.

Windows 8 Share

Mountain Lion Share sheet

Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion will offer some form of Twitter integration, but only Windows 8 offers Facebook integration out of the box, letting you catch up on what your friends are doing from the People app, share items via either service from various apps, and so on.

Where Mountain Lion will offer an iOS-like Game Center, Windows 8 will offer Xbox LIVE. I assume I don’t have to explain why this one is a clear advantage for Microsoft, but it’s important to note that Xbox LIVE isn’t just about multiplayer PC gaming in Windows 8: You can also browse and buy Xbox 360 games from the PC and utilize Xbox LIVE’s digital media online services through the Music and Video apps.

Mountain Lion is bringing AirPlay Mirroring to the Mac. This very useful feature lets you display your Mac’s screen on an HDTV that is connected to an Apple TV. There are various uses for this: With an iPad, you typically use it to play media from the device on your PC, but one might logically expect this capability to be used as a presenter-type tool for the Mac as well. In Windows 8, Microsoft instead uses the DLNA standard for related activities, and while this technology never really took off in previous Windows versions, this time around there is a twist: As with Apple, Microsoft is tying its PC OS directly to its own TV-based device, in the case the Xbox 360. So you will see a new Play on Xbox option available throughout Windows 8—in the Music, Video, and Xbox LIVE apps, for example—that works much as does AirPlay. And as for AirPlay Mirroring specifically, Windows 8 will of course work with Intel’s Wireless Display (WiDi) technology.

Windows 8 Play On Xbox (Music app)

Mountain Lion offers a security feature called Gatekeeper that “helps prevent you from unknowingly downloading and installing malicious software.” This sounds suspiciously like Windows SmartScreen, the Windows 8 feature that helps prevent you from unknowingly downloading and installing malicious software. SmartScreen, of course, debuted two years ago as part of Internet Explorer 9.

Ultimately, what I see here are two very different high-level approaches to Windows 8 and Mountain Lion but a surprising number of similarities in the details. Both Microsoft and Apple are pursuing strategies that bring mobile technologies and usage patterns to general computing devices, or what we’ve called PCs. Both are borrowing the best ideas from their respective smart phone platforms while remaining largely faithful to the strengths of full-featured computers (with Microsoft doing so largely through a legacy, somewhat deemphasized desktop environment). And both are betting big on multi-touch, though their approaches there couldn’t be more different.

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