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The Great Race of Tablet & Desktop Convergence

by on February 21st, 2012

iOS 5.1, OS X Mountain Lion, Windows 8, Windows on ARM…what do all these things have in common? Well, from the outset, very little. Two of them are Apple creations, while the others are from Microsoft. Two of them pertain to tablets and mobile devices, while the other two are synonymous with desktop computing. All four are operating systems and all of them want your mindshare over the next several months. Sounds about right.

Yet, there’s more than meets the eye. With more news of Windows 8 coming out from Redmond and the abrupt release of the OS X preview this week, we’re beginning to see both Apple and Microsoft vying for a very similar vision of the computing future, where lines between tablets, phones, desktops and laptops blur, and then eventually disappear. Is this really the right way to go? Who would win out? What does this all mean?

For those of us who have been otherwise pre-occupied with life and other things, here’s a quick recap of OS X and Windows news from the past few weeks.

Apple released a developer preview of their next version of OS X called Mountain Lion. [I hope they'll run out of big cat names soon. The names are getting somewhat tedious.] Its primary tagline is “Inspired by iPad. Re-imagined for Mac.” and the major features being touted all sound very familiar to iOS owners – Twitter integration, Notification Center, AirPlay mirroring, and Game Center are all going to be a core part of the OS that will be released this summer. Otherwise, Mountain Lion still has the same look and feel as OS X Lion that we currently have.

On the other side of the computing world, Microsoft has announced more details about Windows 8, its next version of its flagship product, around its hardware compatibility with the ARM processor that’s prevalent in almost all mobile devices (but especially tablets). What’s interesting is that Windows 8 will offer both its traditional “desktop” style UI, as well as a touch-friendly “Metro” UI it borrows from its Windows Phone platform. It’s abundantly clear that Windows 8 will use the same code-base to power a wide variety of devices across a number of different form factors.

What’s interesting here is that while the strategy and implementation of these two next generation operating systems are wildly different, the end goal is almost the same – a grand convergence of mobile and desktop experiences wherever you are. It’s certainly a bold vision of the future that offers many benefits. Developers (both app developers, as well as developers within Apple and Microsoft) would have a similar code-base to develop for, potentially streamlining cross-device development time. There’s also a potential for greater profit from having apps deployed across more devices faster, as well as keeping consumers within the Apple or Microsoft ecosystems through greater cross-platform functionality and compatibility. Of course, the sky’s the limit when it comes down to seamless user experience and compatibility when a user goes from tablet to phone to desktop, etc. All sounds good, right?

But is this really the right way to go? As Steve Jobs aptly put it back in 2010, “I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them. And this is going to make some people uneasy.”, and what both Apple and Microsoft are effectively doing are turning their desktop operating systems (i.e. the trucks) into a weird sports-utility-hybrid-convertible-sports-truck-jet…thing. [Fortunately, a Google search doesn't turn anything up that comes close to this monstrosity. Let's hope this forever remains the case.] Fundamentally, how and what we use desktops and tablets for are different, and outside of engineering efficiency, there really isn’t a reason why the convergence needs to happen. Even in recent memory, device OS and UI convergence have rarely been successful (from both the OS platform and an app ecosystem standpoint), even across similar form factors such as phones and tablets. Google’s Android Ice Cream Sandwich is a fairly compelling example that has yet to see strong adoption in both new and existing devices.

At the end of the day, desktops and laptops will remain workhorses, and considering that many of us spend from 1/3 to 1/2 of our day working, it would be safe to say that a traditional desktop UI should remain the de facto for day to day use. In this vein, it seems like Apple got it right with Mountain Lion. Simple propagation of features and benefits that we’ve enjoyed on the iPad in a familiar desktop form is just more palatable than what Microsoft is trying to do. Time, of course, will tell though, andit would be interesting to see whether or not Windows will lose its dominance in this space for trying something new and bold.

Have you given Mountain Lion or the Windows 8 developer previews a try? What do you think about the next generation of operating systems? As always, leave a note for us below.

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