How will Microsoft's Windows 8 match up against Apple's Mac OS X?
Certainly, both operating systems are reflections of their respective companies' evolving needs and philosophies. In the case of Windows 8, widely expected to be released in 2012, Microsoft finds itself confronted with two considerable tasks: convince a billion-strong user base that it needs to upgrade so soon after Windows 7, and make inroads into the tablet and mobility markets. For Apple, the ultimate goal seems to be bringing Mac OS X more in line with iOS, which powers the iPad and iPhone-in the process, emphasizing Apple's self-focus as a mobility-tech company.
Microsoft's response to that burgeoning mobility market has been to design an operating system equally adept at handling the needs of both tablet and traditional PC users.
"Whereas Windows 7 was about returning to roots, Windows 8 is about maintaining those roots while moving forward in a big and new way," Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division, wrote in a Sept. 1 posting on the Building Windows 8 blog. "Moving in a new direction always brings engineering challenges as well as challenges in just talking about what we've done."
In a posting a day earlier, he'd insisted that Windows 8's more tablet-centric interface will peacefully coexist with its desktop one.
"If you don't want to do any of those -PC' things, then you don't have to and you're not paying for them in memory, battery life or hardware requirements," he wrote in that Aug. 31 missive. "If you do want or need this functionality, then you can switch to it with ease and fluidity because Windows is right there. Essentially, you can think of the Windows desktop as just another app."
Early images of Windows 8 showed a tablet-centric user interface based on a set of colorful tiles, heavily reminiscent of the design for the company's Windows Phone. Those glimpses led some in the blogosphere to believe that Microsoft was devoting most of its energies to creating something that could combat Apple's iPad head-on. Now, it seems, Microsoft is determined to show the upcoming Windows as deep and complex enough to meet the needs of multiple form factors.
Over the past few weeks, the official Windows 8 blog has focused on everything from support for USB 3.0 to Windows Explorer revisions to the reasoning behind the changes in user interface. Current rumor also suggests Microsoft could hand out quad-core tablets loaded with a test version of Windows 8 to attendees at its BUILD conference in mid-September. Windows 8 is widely expected to launch sometime in 2012.
Meanwhile, Apple's freshly released Mac OS X "Lion" clearly takes many of its design elements from the company's work with its iOS operating system. Those elements include a baked-in Mac App Store, with access to a wide variety of full-screen apps-a spiritual descendent of the App Store long available for iOS devices. Lion also supports an increased range of gesture control, including page and image zoom and full-screen swiping.
At the same time, Lion includes features that make it a more powerful and supple PC operating system, including Mission Control, which allows users to "zoom out" of their desktop for a bird's-eye view of everything running on the system, and FileVault's XTS-AES 128 data encryption for both internal and external drives.
Combined with Apple's continuing drive to make its PCs lighter and slimmer, it's clear the company is embracing a mobility-is-best philosophy for every aspect of its business. That's in contrast to Microsoft, which at this juncture seems determined to satisfy all the needs of diverse demographics, from desktop-bound power users to tablet aficionados. If the latter can pull off its vision of "no compromises" with Windows 8, and offer something that fulfills those needs for those varied groups, then the Windows franchise can continue its solid sales run for another few years. Apple, on the other hand, can focus its energies on a narrower philosophical mission, which could also help it in the long run.
Microsoft's BUILD conference will likely reveal more about how the company intends to walk the "no compromises" tightrope with Windows 8.