The only computer that really matters: The cloud

Operating systems are a commodity; what really matters are the applications we use and the services we connect to.

Normally I'd be writing this piece sat at a Windows PC, but today things are different. Sat on my lap is a recently purchased MacBook Air, replacing an obsolete MacBook that had fallen off Apple's list of supported hardware.

So why a Mac, and why now? It's the new Microsoft that's encouraged me to add the Air to my stable of test machines, with new tools and services for Mac OS that will only run on the latest OS releases. Then there's needing a machine running Xcode so I can test out the Xamarin cross-platform development tools targetting iOS as well as Windows and Android devices.

What's been most interesting about the process has been just how simple it was to set up a new machine; especially one that's not part of the ecosystem I usually use. In the past it's been a process that's been fraught with problems, and with kludgy workarounds. Last time I switched between Mac and PC it was a much more complex process, involving manually moving files from system to system and translating file formats.

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So what makes things different now? It's clear that things have changed dramatically in the last few years, with the rise of cloud services, and especially with cloud sync.

It doesn't matter what platform you're using; as long as you're able to connect to your cloud sync of choice you can just pick it up and keep working. Yes, there'll always be differences, but the core productivity aspect hinges on the cloud and on sync.

All I needed to do to get started was to install Microsoft's OneDrive client from the Mac App Store, choose the folders I wanted to sync, and I was ready to start working. While I prefer Word, there was no reason I couldn't use my MacBook Air's bundled copy of Pages to edit my files. However it was just as easy to log on to the Office 365 portal and download the MacOS version of Microsoft Office - and to install the recently updated Outlook client.

It's interesting how Microsoft's design style has changed since it last launched Office for Mac. Even though the new Outlook (and the similarly designed OneNote) look much the same they do on Windows, iOS, and Android, they're still clearly Mac applications. It's a smart move on Microsoft's part, giving applications a common set of user experiences on all supported platforms, while still supporting the underlying OS's own conventions.

That new design style also reveals just how outdated Office 2011 feels, when compared with the newer tools. A new Office for Mac is due sometime in the next year, and it's sorely needed, if only to directly integrate with OneDrive and other cloud services like its mobile device siblings. While the OneDrive application handles file sync, it doesn't have the same view of all my recently edited files that I get from Office on the PC, or on iOS, something I've come to rely upon as I switch from device to device.

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My reliance on cloud sync isn't limited to Microsoft tools. Adobe's Creative Cloud lets me bring my Photoshop and Lightroom to my Mac as well as my PC, while apps like Tweetdeck sync their settings with the cloud. It's surprising not to find a cross-platform app that doesn't use some form of cloud sync; even my favourite games use cloud services to synchronise data.

It's clear this shift to cloud-centric ways of working is why Microsoft has spent much of the last year focusing on its out-ecosystem experience. If it wants to become the one-stop productivity shop, with the potential of a massive recurring Office 365 revenue stream, then it needs to have the tools out there to make its services attractive. That means having good OneDrive clients on MacOS, iOS, and Android, along with clients for the most important parts of the Office suite.

That's what we're seeing, and while Windows fans may see this as a snub to their platform of choice, it's actually one of the smartest things Microsoft could be doing. Operating systems are, to be honest, a commodity. They come for free with our hardware, and they get updated for free.

We could just ignore them, as what really matters are the applications we use and the services we connect to. Yes, I could describe myself as a Windows user, but it's now probably more accurate to say I'm an Office 365 and OneDrive user. They've become the backbone of both my work and personal lives, much more than any one computer.

As things evolve over the next few years, we're going to see this approach to things becoming more and more common. You're going to be a Dropbox user, an iCloud user, a Google Drive user first and foremost. Pick up any device and at least some of your data and apps will be there, as soon as you log in to the computer that really matters: the cloud.

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