It's liable to be the head-to-head matchup of 2012: Microsoft's next-generation Windows vs. Apple's next-generation Mac OS X.
"Windows 8," Microsoft's internal term for its Windows 7 successor, might not prove the final name for the operating system. Nonetheless, the company recently offered the world an early look at how it will differ from any previous Windows: in place of the traditional desktop and Start menu, Windows 8 features a set of colorful titles that, when clicked or touched, open applications. In theory, that user interface will make the OS a viable player on touch-friendly mobile devices such as tablets.
"This represents a fundamental shift in Windows design that we haven't attempted since the days of Windows 95, presenting huge opportunities for our hardware partners to innovate with new PC designs," Mike Angiulo, corporate vice president of Windows planning, hardware and PC ecosystem, reportedly told the audience during a June 2 demonstration of Windows 8 at the 2011 Computex conference in Taiwan.
Some big questions loom: Can Microsoft seamlessly merge the new Windows interface with support for legacy programs such as Office? Will lower-power devices such as tablets prove capable of supporting a full-fledged operating system with zero compromises? How Microsoft deals with those questions-and a thousand others-will ultimately determine how well customers and businesses respond to Windows 8.
In any case, Windows 8's tile-centric interface (and all-new apps) owes a heavy debt to Microsoft's Windows Phone, which is based on a similar design. But Microsoft's not the only company using its mobile assets for inspiration: Apple's Mac OS X is also embracing features, such as an app store, that had their origin in the company's iOS mobile operating system.
Mac OS X "Lion," due for release this summer, includes a baked-in Mac App Store with access to full-screen apps. With one click, individual windows within those apps will expand to full screen, and swiping the trackpad will cycle through to new windows. Apple is also using Lion as an opportunity to tweak some user-interface fundamentals, including scroll-bars, which now remain visible only when in use. Lion's trackpads now support an increased range of gesture control, including page and image zoom and full-screen swiping- yet another nod to its own work in mobility and touch interfaces.
Whether Lion remains Apple's primary desktop operating system when Windows 8 arrives on store shelves (the latter is reportedly due in 2012, although Microsoft has issued no official confirmation), it's likely that Apple will continue to evolve the Mac OS X franchise in an increasingly mobile-centric direction, baking in additional cloud features and continuing to streamline its interface in ways reminiscent of iOS.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his executives like to talk about a "post-PC" era, one in which mobile devices such as the iPad take precedence in users' lives over the traditional PC. In that spirit, Windows 8 vs. Mac OS X could be the first great boxing match of this new epoch: two desktop stalwarts, streamlined to the edge of being a mobile OS, out to prove their continued relevance amid the upstart tablets and smartphones.