Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

Summary: While Microsoft is working to make Windows 8 look like its mobile platform, Apple is already reaping the benefits of having a mature and widely-adopted mobile platform.


Following yesterday's unexpected release of the OS X 10.8 developer preview (code-named 'Mountain Lion') we're now in a position to see the different approaches being taken by Apple and Microsoft in how they are developing their next-generation operating systems. And one thing is clear: Apple is benefiting from having a mature mobile platform.

Let's take a look at the two approaches and see how they differ.

Microsoft's approach to Windows 8

Let's face it. Windows hasn't changed that much since the release of Windows 95 nearly 17 years ago. Back in 1995 Microsoft seriously revamped the user desktop and added a set of user interface elements that have persisted to this day, many of which have become iconic. Elements such as the Start Button (or orb), the Start Menu, and a desktop on which users can store files and folders all make up what people think of as 'Windows.'

While Microsoft has tweaked and refined this design with subsequent releases, the user interface paradigm largely remains unchanged in nearly two decades, right up to the release of Windows 7.

Click here to view the Windows 8 installation walk-through gallery

But with Windows 8 things are changing, and they're changing in a big way. Classic elements such as the Start Button are gone, and the Start Menu and desktop have been unceremoniously shoved into the background by the newer 'Metro UI' Start Screen.

The catalyst for all this change wasn't users demanding change, but instead a desire on the part of Microsoft to make the Windows operating system capable of being driven by a fingers as well as a cursor on touch-enabled devices that aren't encumbered by a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft has tried, and failed, for over a decade to put Windows onto tablets, and it's now come to the conclusion that for Windows tablets to succeed, Windows has to be what changes.

For the first time in the history of Windows, Microsoft is looking beyond the PC era and into a post-PC world where out gadgets are small, mobile and both highly personal and highly personalized, and to fit in with this future it is making sweeping changes to Windows.

While there's no doubt that the visual design of Windows 8 has been influenced by Microsoft's Windows Phone platform (this is where the Metro UI was born), what's interesting is how rather than taking the mobile OS to touch-enabled devices such as tablets, Microsoft is instead trying to squeeze the entire desktop OS onto mobile devices while still having to keep it usable on old-style hardware (the PC). It's a delicate balancing act that's going to be hard to get right.

While I quite like what I've seen so far of Windows 8, I'm still not convinced that Microsoft has managed to effectively balance the old (keyboard and mouse) with the new (touch) and I still fear that what we're going to end up with is a hybrid operating system that will be awkward to use on all devices because too many compromises have been made along the way.

There's one question that Microsoft still hasn't answered with respect to Windows 8, and I think it's a key question. What problem does the Metro UI touch-interface solve on a desktop system that isn't touch enabled? I use Windows 8 every day, and I'm still at a loss as to why I'm being forced to use a touch-enabled UI on hardware that I can't control by touch.

Apple's approach -->

Apple's approach to OS X 10.8 'Mountain Lion'

While Microsoft has been busy trying to make its desktop operating system look like a mobile platform, Apple has been taking core features from its mobile platform and embedding them into the desktop OS.

The OS X 10.8 Developer Preview shows us just how busy Apple has been iOS-ifying OS X. Popular iOS features such as iMessage, Notifications Center, Reminders and Game Center have now been ported to work on (and be integrated with) OS X, but not with the idea of turning OS X into a touch-enabled mobile platform, but instead to extend the reach of the services currently on offer on iDevices.

This is an interesting approach, and it tells us a lot about the gulf between Apple's iOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone platform. iOS has come to the stage where it has a set of killer features that can now be migrated from the mobile platform and to the desktop. In fact, it could be argued that Apple has done more with iOS in the past 5 years than it has done with OS X in over a decade, and that most of the big changes in OS X over the past couple of iterations have been driven by iOS.

Apple has been using iOS as a proving ground for new ideas and technologies, and is now in a position to take those technologies to the desktop. Apple sold more iOS devices in 2011 than it has sold Mac systems in 28 years, so it made sense to use iOS as the way to introduce consumers to new features, and it also makes sense to now take these features that people know and love and bring them to the desktop. Like Windows, OS X has been stagnant for some time now. People want new features, not a regular reworking of the user interface, and iOS is a new gold vein that Apple can now mine for those new features that people want. And given that millions of people already using these features on iOS devices, there's an instant market for these features.

Another interesting difference between Apple and Microsoft is in how the two companies have approached touch on the desktop. While Microsoft wants to users to touch and interact with the whole the screen, Apple has been working on trackpad touch gestures to augment the keyboard/mouse/trackpad, rather than replace them.

Note: A question I've been asked a few times lately is do I see iOS and OS X coalescing into a single platform any time soon? The answer is no I don't, because at the moment Apple doesn't seem at all interested in unification beyond that of unifying useful features and the app model. Apple is happy to use one platform to drive the other, and it's a strategy that seems to be a winning idea (for now at any rate).

Oh, and finally, Apple has dropped the 'Mac' from the OS X brand. A lot of reasons why this was done have been postulated, but I think that the simplest reason is the most likely, and that is Apple is simplifying the brand name.

The bottom line

While Microsoft is working to make Windows 8 look like its mobile platform, Apple is already reaping the benefits of having a mature and widely-adopted mobile platform, and is now in a position to take more of these features across to the desktop. Features such as iMessage, Reminders, Notification Center and Game Center will only help to take the Apple ecosystem to the next level as all those iOS users (and there are a lot of them) look for ways to make use of the services they love on their iPhone or iPad on their desktop systems.

While there's no doubt that 'Mountain Lion' is to 'Lion' what 'Snow Leopard' was to 'Leopard' (that is, an evolutionary rather than revolutionary step), the features being dropped into OS X will drive sales of both Mac and iOS hardware, as users look for convergence in the services they use.

Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be on the back foot. While the Redmond giant undoubtedly has the dominant desktop OS, and has a reach so deep into the desktop market that OS X presents no threat whatsoever at this time, it's clear that Microsoft is suffering from an ideas drought, and it doesn't have a mobile platform to plunder. It might come Windows 9 or Windows 10, but for now it's in a position of having to nurture its mobile platform as opposed to harvesting good ideas from it.

While Microsoft is using its dominant desktop platform to try to give the mobile platform a leg up, Apple is doing the exact opposite and using the dominant mobile platform to give its desktop business a boost. It'll be interesting to see which strategy works the best over the next few years.

Image credit: Microsoft, Apple.

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Topics: Operating Systems, Apple, Microsoft, Software

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  • FUD

    "I use Windows 8 every day, and I???m still at a loss as to why I???m being forced to use a touch-enabled UI on hardware that I can???t control by touch."

    I'm curious, since I actually do use the Windows 8 Developer Preview everyday, what makes the UI touch-enabled to you? Is it because you have tiles? Because since all the applications today are not Metro Apps, if you where actually using Windows 8, you would probably spend most of your day AT THE DESKTOP! I see the Windows 8 Start screen as much as I use my start menu, hardly.

    Stop spreading the FUD or show some of these real life issues you're having.
    • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

      @rwalrond just because you like it, does not mean everyone will like it. The same holds true for OS X. They both will work, just not everyone will like it.
      • FUD

        @Joel-r Not liking it doesn't mean that it doesn't work. I say he should show some real life examples or simply stop spreading FUD.
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

        I agree with rwalrond on this. There's a big difference between liking and functionality. I love how people have the option to do touch or use the traditional desktop in Win8 since there are a variety of devices including those touch enabled all-in-one desktop and when Win8 devices that function like a tablet with laptop dock come to market for task flexibility.

        AKH's articles sometimes comes across as SJVN's. They're good at their regular stuff but they make stupid criticisms at Microsoft which to me, seem baseless hate.
        Those who hunt Trolls
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS


        Actually Joel, he doesn't mention in his statement if he likes it or not. He was merely implying that the article author is full of bull**** because had they been using Windows 8, day in day out, they wouldn't have come up with a schoolboy error that got caught out with the first reply.

        Sorry to have had to spell this out to you, but I've come to the conclusion that unfortunately some people really are as thick as you.
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS


        That's the beauty of competition and choice. You can use the products that you like.
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

        just more people don't like metro. Windows mobile phone = epic fail.
        Makes you wonder how a failed product will work the second time.
      • True, but the article is odd...


        I haven't gotten into Windows 8 yet myself, so what I am saying has to be qualified as being heard from other sources. I find the article odd because so far, practically every other time I have read an article from someone who has been using Windows 8 with any regularity and put some hard genuine thought into talking about their evaluation of what they see in Windows 8 so far is that its exceptionally good and almost surprisingly successful at accomplishing the "cross platform" feat its trying to achieve.

        I certainly understand the fairness of anyone being able to give their own evaluation of the OS, after all, there will be a point where I do finally give it a go, and at that point, for me, what will matter in the long run is my evaluation of how it works for me. But so far I really haven't read much similar to this article that has a kind of odd kink in it.

        I mean, there is just an odd take on the situation. Adrian seems on the one hand to be wondering if Windows 8 is really going to be able to cut the mustard on accomplishing this cross platform goal, wondering whether all the changes are for the best or not, but I don't really see a frank evaluation of any opinion from Adrian on Windows 8 itself. Its like it was written by a kid looking through the window of a bicycle shop at the newest shiniest bike wondering if all its new fangled features are what they are cracked up to be. If you want to know the answer to that question for ourselves, clearly the kid looking through the window outside the shop isn't going to be a great source for finding that out.

        Secondly, it seems like Adrian is missing completely, or for some strange reason not mentioning the real issue that applies directly to the general subject of his article which certainly seems to be an opening of the debate of the Apple approach vs. the Windows approach.

        And that main point is not really so much at all about the fact that simply Windows will now be ported to cell phones and OSX is going to start getting iOS features, there is a far far more important issue and integral issue with the two companies approaches. And the issue deals with "high functionality". In my view, when it comes to all hand held devices and gadgets its the real issue entirely. High functionality is the 800 pound gorilla that all these hand held devices are going to come up against and the one that gets there first WILL win the race.

        In my books, while Apple has certainly done some great things with small devices/gadgets, and Android has also made some great inroads and is starting to push some boundaries, the bottom line is, once someone gets an OS on these small gadgets that is both intuitive and can make it operate much closer to the high end functionality of a REAL computer, the company that does that first will indeed have one the race. Thats not to say that others will never cross the finish line at some later point so to speak, but they will be playing catch up.

        In my mind Apple has the very very unfortunate circumstance to either not have seen this coming, or they just decided to do things in their too often backward way. Sure, they quickly created iOS, a very nice touch cell phone OS to be sure, I have an iPhone and I really like it a lot. But iOS is not a computer OS, and iOS on an iPad is not a real computer OS. Putting iOS features into OSX is not anything what-so ever any kind of feat or movement forward. Hell, its almost as bad as simply outright Apple admitting that Macs have such a poor OS they are going to significantly benefit in some way from features from a cell phone OS. Thats hardly a ringing endorsement for Apples approach generally.

        Honestly, I think its pretty obvious that the best approach is to simply find a way to get a user friendly intuitive high functioning desktop/laptop type of OS onto small devices, its not the other way around I'm afraid. Ha! I mean seriously, I really want any reputable writer around here to explain in some credible detail why the real goal would be the opposite, that is to dumb down desktops so they function more like a cell phone with fewer capabilities then desktops have today.

        I really don't see how there is any argument that unfortunately for Apple, the way they have developed their gadgets, they are looking at a backward approach, and as long as it has taken MS to get their house in order at least they are moving powerfully in the correct direction for once.
      • Directionally Correct

        I have to agree with you.
        Not the most eloquent of prose, but you have captured the meat of the nut.
    • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

      @rwalrond Agreed
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

        @RF68 ME TOO!
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

        @RF68 Cayble articulated the key points so nicely. Many of the so-called journalist should feel ashamed because, instead of proper journalism, they keep bombarding the readers, those who have the ability to see through the hypes and the superficial stuff like you, me and Cable and those who do NOT know how to think properly (e.g. the author of the article), with biased articles which do nothing but wasting the electricity and shortening the lifetime of the computer on which I am using!!
    • That your primary gateway to that desktop is a touch paradigm

      is the author's point, and one that most desktop users will run smack into, and be annoyed by.
      • huh?

        @baggins_z Please explain your statement to me.

        Microsoft finally makes Windows more touch friendly, which btw if you rewind to before they showed Windows 8, these same bloggers where calling for Ballmer's head because Microsoft didn't have a touch friendly OS. So now Windows has gone from not being touch friendly to too touch friendly? I call BS on these bloggers and challenge them to put up or shutup!

        Spend some time with Windows 8 and then post some concrete examples of it being too touch friendly or it's just FUD that they're spreading. Which is only good for them.
      • @rwalrond

        Desktop computers (including notebooks) are not touch-centric devices. Making a touch paradigm the default interface for such devices is stupid and annoying. Does that make it clearer?
      • No, your just being silly now.


        I have to believe you at least have read enough about Windows 8 to know how the Metro/Classic interfaces are made available in Windows 8. If you are not its not fair or proper for you to be even making statements about it.

        And if you have read enough about it then you would know what your saying is baseless.
    • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

      @ Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: You berate Microsoft for not doing much to update the Windows UI since 95 and now they are you berate them again.

      Yet Apple does the same and gets your praise. You can't berate Microsoft for sticking with a known UI formula (up until Windows 8) and praise Apple for doing the same.

      OS X 10.0 Cheetah looks very much the same as OS X v10.7 Lion and Chetah was released 11 years ago. Chetah even introduced the "Dock bar":
    • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

      I am heavily invested in Microsoft products (Xbox, Zune, Windows Media Center, Windows 7). I tried the Windows 8 preview on a convertible laptop and desktop... and in the end I'd have to agree with the general premise of this article.

      My prediction for Windows 9 (after a poor reception for Windows 8) is that the Metro UI will be relegated to an app on the desktop (rather than the other way around). See Windows Media Center.
      • I doubt it.

        @NativeFloridian <br><br>The app on a desktop just dosnt cut it for whats going to be needed in the future. For very good reason Apple figured out that the limitless capacity for buttons touch gives you on a smaller device interface means that when people finally start seeing a proper high functioning OS on a hand held thats going to be what the vast majority will want. If Metro is just relegated to being an App, well, you explain to me how the required dynamics of this is going to work on a cell phone or tablet.<br><br>Sorry guys, for all the potential nay sayers, looks to me like the race to high functioning operating systems on small devices is going to be won by Windows. And thats always been the biggest race there is since the iPhone came out.
      • RE: Apple and Microsoft - Different approaches to developing the next-generation desktop OS

        @Cayble<br>It appears that your main point is that a higher functioning mobile OS will win the day. I agree with you and think that the new Metro is well positioned moving forward for primary touch devices... However, on a desktop (I have a touch-screen monitor BTW) the Metro UI doesn't make much sense. <br><br>Business users don't want to limit themselves to one full-screen app at a time. Power internet surfers want always-visible access to their browsing tabs. An on an on...<br><br>All the major desktop OS's (all of which are more similar than different) evolved over many years as the most efficient method of desktop computing and content creation. All that evolution is not easily undone.<br><br>FWIW, I think the biggest advantage that MS has over Apple is its newly released unified programming model (WinRT). The chance to access to one's apps across their phone, tablet, TV (Xbox), and desktop computer is compelling.