Not for the first time, Apple and Microsoft will be facing each other this year with new releases of their PC operating systems. This time will be different, though, since both companies, and not just Apple, will be looking to consumers as the drivers of adoption.
Microsoft isn't abandoning its business customers, of course; they remain critical to the company. But it now wants to become more of a consumer brand. That's a response to a shift that now has consumers driving technology, and the $3 trillion market that's at stake for the consumer wallet.
For much of its history, Microsoft could think about business users first, because most consumers, when it came time to choose a PC operating system for their own use, tended to go with what they used at work, meaning Windows. Today, things are turned around. Consumers are buying what is new and ahead of the curve (the iPhone and iPad both benefited greatly from that trend), and then demanding that they be granted similar user experiences at work.
All of those iPhones and iPads, as well as other smartphones and media tablets, also herald another transition, to computing ecosystems that go well beyond the PC and move the center of consumers' digital lives to the personal cloud. That means that today's PC operating systems have to acknowledge this shift and find ways to capitalize on it.
All of these things have had a big impact on how both Apple and Microsoft approach the PC operating system experience, but those approaches are markedly different. Microsoft, with Windows 8, Xbox, Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT, has embraced the notion that all these different devices should look and work fundamentally the same way. It is striving to unify the look and function across all Microsoft devices with a shared Metro interface and a unified tablet and PC experience.
Apple's approach is that OS X and iOS devices such as iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Apple TV should feel the same but need not look the same. The divergence in these approaches can be seen as Microsoft keeps working toward putting touchscreens on PCs while Apple focuses instead on the touchpad, making sure that the touchpad experience is intuitive to consumers familiar with iOS.
While Windows 8 is still in prerelease form, Apple today has released the latest version of OS X, Mountain Lion, which shows just how Apple sees the role of the PC in a post-PC world. After using Mountain Lion for the last week, I would call it a relatively minor release with major additions to the operating system itself and subtle but important changes to the user interface. Those UI changes make OS X fit much more seamlessly into the ecosystem of Apple's platforms.
With Mountain Lion, integration with Apple's personal cloud services, known as iCloud, is much tighter. This emphasizes that the PC is just one device among many, while also suggesting that the personal cloud will drive long-term consumer adoption.
For example, iOS devices are able to link to Apple TV, either to display content or to use the TV for interactive experiences such as games. Mountain Lion extends this to the Mac with AirPlay Mirroring, which allows content to flow from Apple device to Apple device, from screen to screen, and from location to location. The result? Apple TV not only makes an excellent vehicle for presenting and displaying content, but also a great gaming platform that allows a mixture of devices to become game consoles for multi-player, high-definition games.
In the personal cloud era, there are four major actions: sync, store, stream and share. iCloud integration made the first three of these fairly easy and transparent for users, but sharing was much more difficult. In Mountain Lion, Apple has brought over from iOS an integrated way to share directly from Mountain Lion apps. Now the ability to share contextually relevant information via Facebook or Twitter is as seamless as "print" or "save" is.
Messages and notifications are two other technologies that come to Mountain Lion from iOS but are delivered in a way that makes sense for a PC and not a touchscreen. The integration of messaging allows frictionless communication with iOS users and ties OS X even tighter into the larger ecosystem. Apple also tightly integrates with social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for frictionless sharing. (Most interestingly, if you have integrated your Facebook contacts and then remove the Facebook link, you have the option of leaving all your Facebook contacts on your Mac. This is something I haven't seen elsewhere and is a major step in terms of social graph portability.)
I should note that my Mountain Lion testing was done on Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina Display. This is arguably the most sophisticated PC on the market today. While the PC may no longer be at the center of consumers' digital lives, and even Apple talks about a post-PC world, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display shows that Apple is not about to cede this market and will continue to drive innovation there.
As for Mountain Lion, it shows that Apple is addressing a world of multiple devices by making them communicate with one another more seamlessly, so they can exist together in an integrated ecosystem. This is different from Microsoft's approach, which seems to be making all devices look and act the same. One approach seems to say that there are reasons to have multiple devices, and there are ways to make them work together seamlessly. The other acknowledges that users have multiple devices but seems to be removing the differentiation between them. In the end, it is the consumer that will decide which approach is best.