Windows 8 or Mountain Lion? A look at what to expect from new operating systems from the two giants

It was in January of 2010 when Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder and CEO, famously announced that Apple would take consumers into the post-PC era. The event was to launch the first iPad and according to Jobs, most smartphones and now the iPad were capable and powerful enough to take on most of the tasks regular people would do on their PC.

Jobs was not entirely wrong. Tablets, like the iPad, are indeed powerful enough for most average consumers for their personal usage. However, back then, the iPad required a PC to set up for the first time!There's no denying that the iPad has been successful beyond what most people would like to accept but tablets like the iPad and those running on Google's Android operating system are not going to wipe away Microsoft's Windows and its legacy anytime soon.

Unless, Microsoft dismisses tablets as a fad like Nokia and RIM had in 2007, when the first iPhone was launched. Thankfully, far from being complacent, Microsoft has its own vision where just one platform, Windows 8, will power everything from smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops to some hybrid devices that would morph from being a tablet to a fully functional laptop in the blink of an eye.

The Redmond-based software giant is taking big bets with Windows 8. It will be the first major redesign for the world's largest computing operating system. It has been built from the ground up to support both touchscreen as well as regular mouse and keyboard configuration. This is a big assumption from Microsoft that users would like to have the same user interface irrespective of the input mechanism or the use case. Typically, users tend to use tablets for different purposes than a laptop or a desktop. But according to Microsoft this is purely due to software limitations of platforms like iOS and Android than regular user behaviour.

Whether users would like to use just one device both for their work and pleasure is something we would know only when Windows 8 is available, but the biggest challenge for both Microsoft and its users would be getting comfortable with the new user interface.

The first major shock most regular users would get is the absence of the Start button. Instead of a fixed button on the lower left corner from where users used to access all applications installed on a machine, the Start Menu is now the home screen. Microsoft calls it the ‘Metro UI' where applications are now icons, some of them even live that keep displaying the latest updates.

Microsoft has also gotten rid of the entire menu bar and introduced the concept of swipes. This comes in handy in touchscreen devices where swiping from the middle of all the edges of the tablet inwards reveals a layer of menus and settings. Users will be required to swipe from the right edge inwards to reveal the basic operating system controls like search, Start Menu (it has not entirely disappeared !), the ability to share some element of the application with others and settings related to the app. A swipe from the left edge reveals apps that are running while a swipe from the top or bottom leads to options related to the app running at the moment in the foreground.

It takes time getting used to but one would generally feel at home after using it for a while. Things get a little confusing on a non-touchscreen device, however, where users will have to sort of relearn how to use a PC. Considering one cannot swipe without a touchscreen, one is expected to bring the mouse pointer to the four corners to mimic a swipe input. Thankfully, there is a desktop mode that has the look and feel closer to the old Windows 7 user interface.

Windows 8 will come in two versions - Windows RT and Windows Pro - the core difference being the processor architecture. Devices running Windows RT use an ARM based architecture, which is found in majority of smartphones and tablets. These devices are expected to be thinner, cheaper and offer better battery performance. However, they won't be able to run “legacy” apps - software that were built for computers running x86 architecture or in simple terms devices running on Intel and AMD processors. These apps will be available only for computers running on Windows Pro. Microsoft is pitching the Windows RT devices as iPad, Android tablet competitors while Windows Pro will cater to Microsoft's major user base.

In contrast, Apple is working on its computer operating system from a completely opposite point of view. While Microsoft is giving the PC experience to tablets, Apple is busy bringing elements of its smartphone and tablet operating system to its desktops and laptops. The latest version of its desktop platform, called Mountain Lion, has the most popular features of iOS like a notification centre, the ability to send messages from any Apple device and complete syncing of data across all devices.

The difference in the two strategies is understandable, considering Apple now earns more than half of its revenues by selling the iPhone and iPad, while Microsoft is yet to make a dent in that space. Whose strategy would succeed is difficult to predict but considering Microsoft's domination in the PC space, it would require a tectonic shift in consumer behaviour for it to fall. Microsoft's Windows 8 will be available on October 26 while Apple's Mountain Lion should be available to Mac users for $19.99.

(The author is the Executive Editor of www.bgr.in)

(This article was published on July 26, 2012)
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