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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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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1/27/2014 | 1:58:24 PM
Re: The question of why
Thanks for the wealth of great thoughts. I honed in on this observation in particular:


"But why do it this way; bolting a second OS onto their primary one in a way that was so clumsy? It's pretty simple, really. Time! It takes years for a company to come up with an entirely reworked OS. Microsoft had no time."


Indeed. As as these new leaks suggest, Microsoft is still going through this time-consuming process-- not of refining a solid foundation, but of getting the foundation in shape in the first place. Some of Microsoft's old gambles are still haunting them (such as all the resources invested in Vista that should have been invested in mobile, a mistake Ballmer has lamented in interviews), despite the company's formidable enterprise clout. Maybe Microsoft will wow everyone in April at BUILD. But maybe they'll show a version of Windows 9 that just reminds everyone of what desktop users wanted back in 2012. Given that Microsoft is playing from behind, that wouldn't be a good sign. 
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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1/27/2014 | 1:44:52 PM
Re: Apple lucked out
There's some evidence to support your theory, Lorna. Apple has patents related to touchscreen MacBooks, tablets that convert into laptops and even an iMac, and a solar-powered iPad-attachable keyboard, among other things. Some of these patents pre-date Windows 8 by quite some time. That said, Apple is interesting and hard-to-predict when it comes to pushing new technologies. Sometimes, Apple kills a popular idea before the market has shown it's ready. Flash, floppy disks, etc. It also pushes forward-thinking ideas that are important to niches but not mainstream users-- firewire, thunderbolt, and so on. But in other cases, Apple sits on technologies until it feels they're mature enough to bring to market. Based on recent hires, Apple is clearly working on wearable devices, for example, but it seems unconcerned that its iWatch (or whatever) beat any other products to market.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 1:36:33 PM
Apple lucked out
What's the over/under on Apple having gone down the iOs/OSX convergence path prior to release of Win8, then sticking a fork in the projects after the reception Microsoft got in the market?

Just think about the benefits Apple got by letting MS take the lead into uncharted territory for once. You can't pay for that kind of market research.

 
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