Windows 8 and Mac OS X Lion’s Very Different Approaches to the Future of Computing

June 2nd, 2011

Microsoft previewed Windows 8 today, and it raises a fascinating question: what’s the future of computing?

Apple is making their vision for the future quite clear with iOS, the iPad and Mac OS X Lion. Microsoft, for their part, seems to think the future will mostly resemble the present.

Windows 8

With Windows 8, Microsoft’s basic idea is they want the OS to scale from tablet-sized devices all the way to desktop and television-sized displays, with or without a mouse or keyboard. It’s an ambitious goal.

What this means is there’s a touch start layer on top of “classic” Windows, which is effectively Windows Phone 7′s start screen, and developers can build touch applications. In effect, touch applications and keyboard and mouse-optimized applications run on the same OS at the same time.

What bothers me, though, is touch is only a layer on top of regular Windows. This isn’t a ground-up re-design for touch devices; this is a retrofitting of Windows for it, without giving up the user interface designed for keyboard and mouse. This sounds nice, because it means Windows 8 will be able to run both new touch applications and more powerful PC applications, but what it will probably mean in reality is that there will be a firm divide between touch and PC applications in capability. Because PC applications will continue to work fine (except on ARM processor-based devices), developers will have little reason to completely re-design their PC applications for touch. They’ll release touch “optimized” versions and call it good, while touch applications may just end up being simple and entertainment-focused, rather than complete applications. More widget than application, in other words.1

It’s a tough problem to solve, admittedly; do you have separate classes of devices, with specialized user interfaces, for touch and traditional keyboard and mouse input? This has its advantages: it puts pressure on developers to build complete applications for touch devices and it helps guarantee a better user experience because each user interface is designed specifically for the kind of input used. But this also creates limited devices—touch devices for consumption and lighter work, PCs for serious work like heavy video editing and writing—and separate operating system development paths, too. I don’t think the future of the computer is fast-developing touch devices and completely separate, relatively unchanged PCs for “real” work.

Devices that combine both touch and keyboard and mouse input can, theoretically, do all the work someone needs; users can hook it into a dock and use it for heavy spreadsheet, video, photo or design work, then pull it out of the dock and use it for relaxing on the couch or reading at a coffee shop or on a flight. The Windows 8 concept allows that to happen, and it’s certainly an attractive vision.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t think Microsoft’s current design for Windows 8 will make that a reality. Instead, it hamstrings touch so classic Windows and all of its applications can survive with minimal re-design. It attempts to make touch and traditional PC applications coexist without also converging their design.


With Mac OS X Lion, though, Apple seems to be taking a very different approach to this issue. Lion borrows heavily from iOS both in concept (App Store, Launchpad, gestures, full-screen applications) and in appearance (user interface elements that resemble popovers introduced on the iPad). Apple could merely be adopting good ideas that iOS introduced to improve Mac OS, but I think there’s something more going on. I think Apple’s attempting to converge Mac OS and iOS.

This is a long-term process, but this approach makes a lot of sense. Rather than build a single OS right now that awkwardly contains Mac and iOS applications—both with unique interfaces—Apple may be attempting to converge the UI language for Mac OS and iOS. By doing so, they can at some point release devices that work just as well with touch and keyboard and mouse input.

In that case, the MacBook Air screen could fold over backward and be used like a tablet, or opened up and used like a notebook, and there would be no need for touch layers like Microsoft is building with Windows 8. Just use it in whatever way works best for what you need at the moment.

That’s a very different approach. Apple is pushing their two operating systems toward each other, while Microsoft is integrating touch as a layer on top of their pre-existing Windows operating system without bringing them closer to each other.

This isn’t a pain-free solution, of course; moving Mac OS closer to iOS inherently means giving up capabilities that some users find absolutely necessary for what they do, but Apple’s always been willing to cause pain for certain users if it’s in the best interest of everyone else. Apple’s trying to create the future of computing here, and a little transition difficulty for non-mainstream users is little concern.

These two different approaches are microcosms of Apple and Microsoft’s very different approaches generally. Apple envisions what they want the future to be for their company (based both on what’s optimal for them and what they see as the best solution for users), and figures out how they’re going to get there from where they are now. This may mean sacrificing existing products, or radically changing them—everything is up for consideration. Microsoft, though, is responding to market trends (touch as a means of input) while attempting to protect their existing business (Windows and its existing applications).

These two approaches also create two very different visions for the future of computers. Microsoft’s integrates touch input for relatively limited purposes, with keyboard and mouse input as the PC’s serious and general purpose means of input. This means, then, that Microsoft’s vision for the future of computing is not that different than computers as we currently know them.

Apple’s approach, on the other hand, opens up very different devices, where touch is as important as the keyboard or mouse, or even more important. Apple isn’t allowing touch and PC user interfaces to coexist in the same OS; rather, they’re moving the PC user interface toward a touch interface. In April, I argued that Apple’s vision is to make the technology irrelevant:

Apple is seeking to make the technology irrelevant, so we can use these devices to do—to make, to create, to be inspired from. Don’t worry about what processor or display it has. Just read. Just write. Just draw. Just do.

Merging iOS and Mac OS fits this vision perfectly. Apple doesn’t want users to think about which device—touch or Mac—they should use for a certain task; they want them to be able to pick it up and just do it. That’s a grand vision for computing.

We’re a long way away from it, but we’re moving toward it, and I’m excited for it.

  1. It’s worth noting, though, that because legacy Windows applications will not run on ARM-powered tablets, these could end up being “pure” touch devices. If they’re popular, they could create a strong ecosystem of touch-based Windows applications, would obviate my fear that touch applications will end up being consumption applications. I don’t think it’s likely, though, that these tablets will be successful. Why would someone purchase a Windows tablet with a very small selection of applications available when they could buy an iPad or Android-powered tablet? []