Last week Apple unexpectedly unveiled a developer preview of its next-generation OS X, 10.8 'Mountain Lion.' Apple promises that the final code will be available for Mac owners to install onto their Macs come summer, which is likely to be well ahead of Microsoft's release of Windows 8.
That alone could give Apple a small advantage over the Redmond behemoth, but with 'Mountain Lion' Apple has another ace up its sleeve, and it's one that could give it a significant advantage over Microsoft and make this release for OS X the most important OS to come out of Apple since iOS was unveiled.
But that secret weapon isn't what you think it is.
Many people seem to think that Apple's 'secret sauce' advantage over Microsoft is that it controls both the hardware and the software, allowing it to bring to customers a controlled experience that Microsoft working through OEMs can't match.
That's certainly an advantage, but most consumers aren't switched on enough to recognize the advantage that this offers. Others seem to think that it's the excellent customer service the company offers. Again, that certainly helps, but if good customer service were paramount, companies offering bad service would have hit a wall a long time ago.
And then there are those that think that Apple's power lies in the healthy profit margin it commands for its hardware that's allowed it to accumulate billions in the bank, giving it the opportunity to step outside of the mass market and offer something better (or at least different).
Again, I'm sure that this helps in that it's allowed Apple to be innovative and take chances when bringing a product to market, but there's a big difference between bringing a new product to market and selling said product.
So what is this secret weapon that Apple is bringing to the table with OS X 10.8 that gives it an advantage over Microsoft's Windows 8?
One word - integration.
I've been using Microsoft's developer preview of Windows 8 a lot, and I like it. But there's a big (but at the same time, subtle) difference between Windows 8 and OS X 10.8. Windows is still very much an operating system, in that it's a foundation that users can build upon.
While there are basic features built into the platform, it's very much up to the end user to decide what to do with the tool they've been given. And this means hours of painstaking downloading and setting up.
'Mountain Lion' offers a different approach. Rather than being just an operating system that people can build on, OS X 10.8 will very much be a platform (very much like iOS) that tightly integrates services such as iMessage, Reminders, iCloud and Game Center that millions of people are already using on iOS devices directly into the desktop or notebook.
There will be no need to download anything and configuration begins and ends with users putting entering in their Apple ID and password. There's massive pool of iOS users who are going to find it incredibly compelling to have the exact same features that they are already used to on their iDevice built directly into the OS X platform, and have them a click away.
The price to pay to have all these services work seamlessly between desktop and mobile? Mac and iDevice ownership.
Apple has sold more iOS devices in the past year than it has sold Macs in 28 years, and that's given the company an amazing opportunity. It is now in a position to leverage this enormous mobile platform user base and use it to boost Macs sales by tempting them with total integration.
No matter whether you're in front of an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod touch or a Mac, you have access to all your information, reminders and messages. What better marketing tool can you think of for new OS X features (and new Macs) than having millions of people already using those exact same services and features on their iOS devices? Apple isn't integrating new, experimental features into the OS, but stuff that people already know and love.
Microsoft has its own platforms in the form of Live services, and it has millions of users, but the diverse nature of Windows means that people are using a wide range of services from a myriad of providers. Apple, by putting tools such as iMesaage and iCloud right at user's fingertips, gave them an easy choice, and as a result has picked up a following of millions in a short period of time.
Apple's approach is also cleaner in that there's no seizure-inducing advertising plastered everywhere like here is all over the place with Live services. While Microsoft and OEMs are busy filling Windows with ugly revenue-generating ads and crapware, Apple's solutions are clean and focused, allowing users to focus on the tasks at hand rather than being distracted by some animated annoyance. This might seem more like a nitpick, but there's a lot to be said for a clean, distraction-free user interface.
I don't usually make predictions unless I'm pretty confident of them coming true, but I'm willing to make a prediction related to OS X 10.8. Here it is - OS X 10.8 will be the biggest, most important OS release that Apple has seen since the release of iOS (which was called iPhone OS back then), and it will push Mac sales to a whole new level.
Which approach do you think is best? Apple's clean, crisp, integrated approach to services, or Microsoft's build your own platform and services that are crammed with annoying ads?