Windows vs. Mac: Desktop Battle Lines Drawn - InformationWeek

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1/27/2014
11:26 AM
Michael Endler
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Windows vs. Mac: Desktop Battle Lines Drawn

Reports and executives' hints frame potential Mac vs. PC debates of the future.

7 Mistakes Microsoft Made In 2013
7 Mistakes Microsoft Made In 2013
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PC and tablet users might have gained insight last week into Apple's and Microsoft's future strategies from clues in remarks from top Apple executives and screenshots picturing an update allegedly coming to Windows 8.1.

The hints mainly revolve around features and user interface aesthetics, but their most interesting implications involve the companies' philosophical outlooks on computing -- namely, whether a PC and a tablet can or should exist in the same package.

Microsoft marched aggressively into the convergence camp with Windows 8 to mostly disastrous effect. The company has since found a smoother desktop-mobile blend in Windows 8.1, but the OS has still made only modest gains. Recent reports indicate future Windows updates will maintain the OS's current foundation while making more concessions to desktop users, many of whom find the current version too touch-centric.

[Good news for Win XP fans: See Microsoft Delays Windows XP Antivirus Doomsday.]

Apple, which last week celebrated the 30th anniversary of its Mac computer line, has kept its laptops defiantly devoid of touchscreens, but rumors have long indicated that some iOS/OS X hybrid device might be in the works. Patents show Apple has at least considered the concept, but top execs strongly suggested last week that customers shouldn't expect a hybrid iDevice anytime soon.

"You don't want to say the Mac became less good at being a Mac because someone tried to turn it into iOS," said Apple senior VP Craig Federighi, who oversees both Apple's mobile and desktop OSes, in an interview with Macworld, published Thursday. "At the same time, you don't want to feel like iOS was designed by [one] company and Mac was designed by [a different] company."

Federighi also dismissed touchscreens on PCs, stating they don't provide a good experience. Apple senior VP Phil Schiller said in the same interview that it's less important for tablet and PC interfaces to converge than for experiences to move seamlessly across devices.

How does this compare to what's cooking at Microsoft? Officially, the company isn't saying much, except that its enterprise business is soaring, and that its Surface products have been upgraded from massively unprofitable to somewhat unprofitable.

But unofficial reports from usually reliable sources suggest Microsoft will retreat somewhat, but not completely, from its original vision of convergence.

Previous reports from sources including ZDNet, The Verge, and Windows expert Paul Thurrott indicate Microsoft is readying at least one update, possibly two, for Windows 8.1. A major update codenamed Threshold, but which might be called Windows 9 for marketing purposes, is expected to follow in spring 2015. It will allegedly integrate several features aimed at mouse-and-keyboard users, including a Start menu like the one in Windows 7 and the ability to run windowed Modern apps from the desktop.

Threshold will also reportedly coincide with the release of new Windows versions: a Modern UI-focused one for phones and tablets; one for 2-in-1s and traditional PCs that will retain the Modern UI but focus more on desktop features; and a separate enterprise version.

A screenshot from an alleged Windows 8.1 update. Source: Win8China
A screenshot from an alleged Windows 8.1 update. Source: Win8China

Threshold suggests Microsoft's perspective now aligns with Apple's in certain respects. Windows 8's original Frankenstein approach didn't work. It was far too dramatic a departure, with gaps between the UIs that were bridged too inelegantly, if at all. It appears Microsoft is now retreating to something more centrist.

The company's not changing course altogether, nor is it embracing Apple's professed hardline distinctions. But Microsoft seems to have realized that even if a Windows tablet can run desktop apps, it can't replace an actual Windows laptop.

The most recent Windows rumors reinforce this idea. Alleged screenshots of the aforementioned Windows 8.1 update appeared online this week, first from Russian blogger, and noted leaker of Microsoft product news, WZor. Additional screenshots popped up on Win8China.com.

The images indicate the update, called Update 1 in various online reports, will enable users to pin Modern apps to the taskbar and see a thumbnail view of pinned apps.

It's not clear if Windows Store apps launched from the desktop will spring into full-screen Modern view or if they'll be available as windowed apps on the desktop, per the Threshold rumor. No Start menu appears in any of the images.

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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1/28/2014 | 10:16:34 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
Excellent point, @melgross.  Of course, back then we didn't have nearly the proliferation of tech "news" sites that we do now, with all sorts of rumormongering and speculation about the latest self-driving flying laser-shooting car that Google is working on.  No wonder fanbois are all like, WHERE'S THE INNOVATION, APPLE???  The tech world is creating unrealistic expectations while spoiling us.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
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1/28/2014 | 5:31:39 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
>Can MS deliver the genius bar experience?

Yes, but it will be called the average bar. ;-)
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
1/28/2014 | 1:25:49 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
And Apple provides different customer service than anyone out there, in my experience. Can MS deliver the genius bar experience? Can Google, some day? It is now the standard for consumer devices and BYOD devices in my mind.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 4:44:41 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
That's fair. I'm not sure I'd call Apple products uniformly overpriced, and I think there's definite value in their designs that somewhat justifies the price premium-- but I sure wouldn't mind if they were cheaper. And though it doesn't match my personal experiences, I've heard from others for whom the "It just works" mantra has fallen deal-breakingly short.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 4:35:04 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
Yes, Apple is very good at addressing customer needs, both present and future. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 4:29:54 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
OS X and iOS won't converge in the near future. Doing so would alienate OS X developers, who would find themselves unable to create apps, as they can now, without Apple approval. That's in addition to the differeing priorities of mobile (battery life) and desktop computing (processing power).
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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1/27/2014 | 4:26:42 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
I understand this point of view, but only to a degree. Apple didn't literally invent tablet computers, per se, but I bet most people think otherwise. I understand why that might irk some people.

But even if Microsoft or someone at Xerox PARC or whoever invents a concept, doesn't Apple deserve some credit for figuring out how to turn the concept into a disruptive force? "Invent" and "innovate" aren't the same (though Apple, like Microsoft, invents lots of stuff). Moreover, if all Apple did was "tweak" someone else's idea, why haven't more companies figured out how to copy Apple's model? Marketing is admittedly a part of Apple's success, but so are the products themselves. I find it difficult to deny Apple its reputation as an innovative company.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 3:49:20 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
I'm curious about what an Apple hybrid device UI would look like. Apple would merge the two platforms more seamlessly than Frankenstein Windows 8. But I don't see the motivation for doing it at all. There's no customer demand. And say what you want about Apple -- but the customer comes first. Windows 8 had little to do with customer needs, but was an effort -- and a clumsy one -- to solve a bunch of Microsoft's own problems at once (revive dying PC market, get into tablets). Microsoft rolled the dice and hoped we would go along with it.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 2:21:01 PM
Re: The question of why
Another thing I picked up on is the concept of getting your stake in the ground in light of agreeing to not copy UI functionality. One could think of Win8 as the equivalent of a kid taking small bites out of all the chocolates in the box so the grownups won't eat them. Get the tiles concept, and whatever else you can jam in, out there. Now MS owns it and can refine (eat the candy) at leisure.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 2:03:46 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
I suppose it would be more correct to say there's no evidence to support that Apple intended to bring any convergence device to market. That much is speculation. But there's certainly evidence to support that Apple investigated convergence, perhaps just to conclude that it was a bad idea, or perhaps to make things a bit more difficult for competitors. Certainly, companies patent things all the time that they never intend to bring to market.

EDIT: Sorry, melgross, just saw your other reply, in which you raised many of these points already.
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