Convergence Or Confusion: Comparing Apple’s And Microsoft’s Approaches To Post-PC

Last week saw Microsoft launch its latest major operating system update, Windows 8. We’ve had a good long time to get used to what Windows 8 was bringing; Microsoft released public betas and consumer previews long before it hit shelves, in part to refine the product, and in part to acclimatize the public to what’s definitely a big paradigm shift in Windows computing. In a lot of ways, with Windows 8, Microsoft got the jump on what Apple seems intent on doing with OS X and iOS: a convergence of desktop and mobile computing. But the approaches both companies are taking to changing consumer computing habits are very different, and both strategies have their merits and their pitfalls.

Windows 8: This Tablet Is A PC

In his review, TechCrunch’s Matt Burns said that despite any suggestions to the contrary on Microsoft’s part, the Surface is a PC at heart. From my experience with Windows 8, that’s a solid description of the OS even in its more tablet-focused RT form. The Windows 8 UI, once called “Metro,” is clearly optimized for touch input, and works best on touchscreen devices. But underneath, Windows is still there — you’re pushed to the standard desktop when you run Office applications for instance, and for a lot of other functions.

Microsoft has been talking a lot about how it decided to make a much more significant change than a simple, iterative update. And in many ways, that’s true. The Windows 8 experience is different, and will catch new users off-guard. It’s adventurous, and when it works (as with live tiles and well-designed Windows 8 applications from the new Windows app store), it works well. But somehow, at the same time, it’s also too tied to the past, a hybrid that at times combines the frustration of learning something new with the exasperation of dealing with old familiar problems.

Macs And iPads: Different Devices That Benefit From Shared Features

Apple began its mobile efforts with an approach that was surprisingly similar to where Microsoft is now at with Windows 8. In the beginning, Apple famously pitched the iPhone as a device that just “runs OS X.” That’s because iOS shares programming roots with OS X; both are forms of Unix operating systems. But the stated unity ended up being more confusing than helpful, since iPhone OS (as it soon came to be called) was clearly a different beast from OS X, since you couldn’t run apps from one on the other, for example, which is only the most obvious difference between the two.

Eventually, Apple cleared up the distinction between the two, and eventually iPhone OS became iOS and OS X remained a distinct, desktop-specific experience. And then, after pulling back from what was initially pitched as a unified experience, Apple began taking steps to bring the two closer together in function, adding iCloud syncing, notifications, App Stores for software distribution, Twitter and Facebook integration, home screens for software browsing and more.

Leaping Vs. Learning

Microsoft seems to be the more innovative of the two companies when it comes to figuring out a way to hybridize mobile and desktop computing. Despite retaining its Windows roots, adopting essentially the interaction interface of Windows Phone as the default method for interacting with new Windows computers is a big, sudden shift. Compared to that, Apple’s gradual introduction of key mobile features to OS X where they seem useful looks positively cautious by comparison.

Changes to OS X that have brought aspects of iOS to Apple’s desktops have met with criticism. Lion and Mountain Lion have definitely made some users uncomfortable, with their changes to how scrolling works (more like on a touch-based iOS device, thanks to a reverse in direction) and complaints about the App Store and Apple’s requirements for developers who want to distribute through that channel. But the staged approach makes those complaints more or less outlier cases; overall, people seem to have accepted and embraced OS X 10.7 and 10.8.

Will Microsoft’s riskier push be as effective? Well, Redmond has done a good job of making the cost of upgrading to Windows 8 minimal, and we’ve even seen some reports that users who want to switch to Windows 8 from an illegal copy of Windows 7 aren’t having any upgrade problems. But the gutsier overhaul of Windows 8 is sure to ruffle more feathers than did either Mountain Lion or Lion. Already, pre-launch reviews and impressions have varied considerably, with a lot of very negative feedback coming from bloggers and media. But if anyone can weather a rough transition, it’s Microsoft, given the market domination of Windows and the fact that if it comes out with a bad Windows release (see Windows Vista), it can survive fairly easily and users often don’t miss much by just waiting another cycle to upgrade.

So Which Is Better?

Getting to a point where mobile computing and desktop computing strike a perfect balance and provide a seamless experience for users switching frequently between both won’t be easy for any company involved in providing that experience. But which approach, Apple’s or Microsoft’s is the better one?

Microsoft’s is definitely the braver strategy; the company must know it’ll make users uncomfortable with a change this significant. It has included the same desktop users will recognize, which some have seen as not going far enough, but this is still a very aggressive play by Microsoft, and one that should prepare users for the final step of doing away with told paradigm altogether next time around.

Apple, on the other hand, is slowly making over its desktop experience, in a way that should ease the transition for users, but will ultimately keep desktop and mobile computing as distinct experiences for a lot longer. But users might reward it for that kind of hand-holding, by sticking around through the process and even bringing new users into the fold as things progress gradually, while Microsoft sheds some users thanks to its more abrupt shift.

Ultimately, while I respect the direction Microsoft is taking, Apple’s is the better to retain and grow loyalty as the world transitions from one kind of computing to a new model, the final look of which isn’t at all clear at this point. In fact, Windows 8 may actually help Apple considerably in its own mission, by taking risks and conducting experiments with an extremely large user pool from which OS X engineers can learn a lot. As has often been the case, Apple will watch Microsoft’s attempts to forge the future of hybrid computing experiences and take what it needs to jump ahead down the road. Great artists steal, after all.