In 2009, Microsoft unveiled Windows 7. The operating system had a dual mission: erase the bad memories associated with Windows Vista, which in its early days was met with derision from an extremely vocal subset of customers and businesses, and replace the solid-but-aging Windows XP.
A couple months before Windows 7 hit store shelves, Apple rolled out an updated version of its Mac OS X, Snow Leopard (the company has a thing about naming each successive OS after a big cat of some sort). Unlike Windows 7, Apples latest software platform was more of an update than an outright revision. And although pundits and the tech press made the inevitable head-to-head comparisons between the two companies offerings, nobody seemed to believe that Snow Leopard would threaten Windows 7 in the traditional operating-system space.
Three years later, history is set to repeat, with Microsoft and Apple ramping up new versions of their respective operating systems for release within months of each other. But the tech landscape as a whole has undergone some seismic shifts in the interim. Although Windows continues to dominate the market for traditional operating systems, the rise of mobilitydriven in large part by Apples success with the iPad and iPhonehas threatened to replace the PC as the center of peoples everyday computing lives.
That trend has affected Microsoft in a very big way. Windows 8 features a "start" screen of big, colorful tiles linked to applicationsthe better to touch, because Microsoft intends the operating system for both traditional PCs and tablets. It will come with an app store, and many of the latest under-the-hood tweaks optimize battery life and wireless connectivity.
Windows 8 tablets will face a variety of competitors, including the iPad and a large array of devices running Google Android. Part of Microsofts strategy for dealing with that threat rests on its emphasis of Windows 8 as a consummate productivity platform, even on a smaller touch-screen.
In a Building Windows 8 blog post describing Windows on ARM architecture, which powers many of the tablets on the market today (and for which Microsoft applies the acronym WOA), Windows and Windows Live division president Steven Sinofsky suggested that the new version of Office software would come as an integral part of the overall Windows experience. Within the Windows desktop, WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, code-named Office 15, he wrote. WOA will be a no-compromise product for people who want to have the full benefits of familiar Office productivity software and compatibility.
Thats on top of a robust apps ecosystem. For the past few months, Microsoft executives have encouraged third-party developers to create apps for Windows 8. The company will further emphasize the upcoming operating systems mobile bona fides by (almost certainly) unveiling the Consumer Preview (a fancy term for beta) at this Februarys Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Mountain Lion, Apples next version of Mac OS X, similarly takes big cues from mobile operating systemsin its case, by incorporating a number of features that first appeared on iOS. These include iCloud, which syncs user data (including mail, calendars, contacts and documents) between devices via the cloud, and a new Messages feature allows Mac users to send unlimited messages to iOS devices.
With Apple, this evolution toward mobility feels more organic. For some time, it has positioned itself as a mobile first company. The current version of its software, Lion, incorporates an app store clearly derived from the one available for iOS.
Windows continues to hold a commanding share of the traditional operating system market, a situation that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The bigger question is whether Windows 8s embrace of the mobile paradigm will allow it to fight toe-to-toe against Apple in the tablet market. That certainly remains to be seen, but based on the new features in Mountain Lion, it also seems that Apples unwilling to let Microsoft entirely dictate the evolution of the operating system on PCs.