This year is shaping up as a repeat of 2009, when Microsoft and Apple last faced off with rival operating system upgrades, analysts said today.
Three years ago, Microsoft rolled out Windows 7, it's last operating system upgrade, and Apple launched Snow Leopard, or Mac OS X 10.6.
Today, Apple began distributing a preview of Mac OS X 10.8, aka Mountain Lion, to developers, and said it would ship the final code "late summer 2012."
Meanwhile, most analysts agree that Microsoft is on pace to deliver Windows 8 to customers this year, probably in the fourth quarter. The company has slated the release of what it calls a "Consumer Preview" of Windows 8 for Feb. 29.
"It looks like both have the mobile OS religion," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research.
Gottheil cited the similarities between the Microsoft and Apple strategies, pointing out that both show strong influence from the companies' mobile operating systems.
"It's interesting that both companies are taking big gambles this year with their operating systems," said Gottheil. "Both recognize that the form factor that's taken off, tablets and smartphones, requires an upgrade from the 25-year graphical user interface that's dominated PCs."
In Microsoft's case, Windows 8 features a completely new opening interface -- dubbed "Metro" -- that borrows heavily from Windows Phone's tile-style look-and-feel. While the Redmond, Wash. developer will retain a traditional desktop in Windows 8, it's aggressively promoted Metro as not only the basis for the Start screen, but also for a new generation of applications that stress touch over mouse and keyboard.
Mountain Lion is less of a departure for Apple, if only because the company began borrowing elements of iOS last year when it launched Mac OS X 10.7, or Lion. But Mountain Lion will include a wide swath of iOS applications and services, such as Notifications and Reminders, as well as new names for long-time Mac apps, like iCal and Address Book, to match the labels used in Apple's mobile operating system.
And while Microsoft is pushing touch in Windows 8 -- even though few traditional desktops or notebooks support touchscreen gestures -- Apple seems to be standing pat on the touchpad-based gesture support it added to Lion last year.
Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion will also push customers toward their makers' online distribution centers.
Microsoft has said that Metro apps will be available only via the Windows Store, the company's app store, although enterprises will be able offer employees internally-created Metro apps without exposing that software to the public. Traditional 32- and 64-bit Windows applications can be downloaded and installed from any source.
Although Apple debuted its Mac App Store more than a year ago, it's emphasizing the market even more in Mountain Lion.
A new feature, dubbed "Gatekeeper" by Apple, lets users decide where they obtain Mac software. The most stringent setting of "Mac App Store" allows installation of only those programs downloaded from Apple's e-market. Two other options let Mac owners install any application, no matter its source, or limits installation to software that's either retrieved from the app store or digitally signed by a developer approved by Apple.
The default for the developer preview is "Anywhere," while the final edition will set the default source to "Mac App Store and identified developers," Apple confirmed today.
While Apple and Microsoft have both pitched their respective app stores as a way to separate the malware chaff from the legitimate software wheat, it's no coincidence that both companies take a revenue cut from software sold through their distribution channels.
"What I like about this is that you can turn this off," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner Research. "You can feel free to install anything, or you can set it so that you don't have to worry about [malware] issues. It's like when some cars automatically lock the doors when you start the car. But you're able to turn that off."
In 2009, Apple beat Microsoft to market, releasing Snow Leopard in late August. Microsoft followed with Windows 7 the third week of October.
If Apple comes through with its "late summer" promise for Mountain Lion, it will likely best Microsoft again. And unless Microsoft drastically slashes the price of the Windows 8 upgrade, Apple will probably also again undercut its rival.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.