The PC is dead.
Let me clarify: The personal computer, as imagined by IBM and powered by Microsoft DOS and Windows, is raggedly exhaling its final breaths. In its place is a great big shuddering heap of conflated, commingled, converging software and hardware led by Apple’s Mountain Lion and Microsoft’s Windows 8.
The shocking thing is just how quickly his convergence has occurred. Released in 2009, both Windows 7 and OS X 10.6 had almost zero cloud-, mobile-, or cross platform features; they were both very much “PC” operating systems. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t add extra functionality through third-party software, but the out-of-the-box experience, which the vast majority of users experience, was very PC.
In stark contrast, if you take a look at Windows 8 and OS X 10.8, both slated for release in the second half of 2012, almost every feature is somehow linked to the cloud, mobile, or home entertainment; these OSes are no longer PC-oriented, but instead the central, converged hubs for your complete digital existence.
Windows 8 and Mountain Lion, using a single sign-on, will use Windows Live and iCloud to sync all of your documents, images, and music between all of your devices. You will be able to buy a Windows 8 tablet that you can use in the livingroom, and then dock it to a keyboard and mouse when you’re at your desk. With AirPlay mirroring and Game Center, Mountain Lion will double up as a home entertainment system, allowing Mac, iPhone, and iPad users to play against each other on an Apple TV. Windows 8 apps will be very easy to port to Windows Phone 8, and Windows 8 apps will automatically sync between five Windows 8 devices (home, office, tablet, and so on).
Furthermore, the difference — and thus friction — between the desktop and mobile OSes is being reduced. In Mountain Lion, a bunch of iOS features have been lifted straight out and inserted into the desktop OS; most notably the Notification Center. Many apps are being renamed so that they match the iOS equivalents, too: iCal becomes Calendar, iChat becomes Messages, and so on. These changes are in addition to Lion’s introduction of an app launcher and gestures that are virtually identical to iOS.
On the Windows side, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that primary interface — the Metro Start Screen — is very similar to the Windows Phone 7 (and 8). The latest update to the Xbox 360 dashboard is also very Metro-inspired (and there are Xbox Live companion apps for both Windows Phone and Windows 8). Finally, there’s a rumor that the Xbox 720 might even be powered by Windows 8. Microsoft insists that the Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 app stores will be separate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if — eventually — phone, console, and tablet/laptop/desktop all share the same Metro app store.
Apple has the upper hand
It’s clear, then, that Microsoft and Apple have both settled on a post-PC reality — but, interestingly both companies are converging from completely different directions. Microsoft is trying to leverage its way into the tablet and phone market by way of its massive Windows user base. Apple, on the flip side, is trying to get iOS users to pony up for a Mac laptop, Apple TV, and eventually an Apple iTV.
The problem, of course, is that Windows 8 is a massive, revolutionary gamble that takes Microsoft way beyond its comfort zone. For 30 years, Microsoft has been making money on x86 PCs and servers, and the Office suite of software. With Windows 8, Microsoft is moving to a brand new architecture, giving away Office for free, doing away with the Start button and menu, and generally making a huge mess of the Desktop/Explorer side of things. Adding to this, Windows Phone 7 is limping along, and there’s no real indication that Windows drives users to the Xbox 360, and vice versa. In short, Microsoft needs Windows 8 to succeed on tablets and drive sales of Windows Phone 8… or it’s screwed.
Apple, on the other hand, has the iPhone and iPad; two of the world’s most desirable mobile devices. On the back of just these two devices, Apple’s fourth quarter revenue was over $46 billion. More than 50 million iPhones and iPads were sold in this period, and it’s really no surprise that the same quarter also saw record breaking sales of Macs. In short, Apple already has a huge head start in The Great Convergence. Apple has already made its revolutionary leaps — way back in 2007 with the iPhone, and again with the iPad in 2010 — and the payoff has been huge. Where Microsoft now has to bet it all on a form factor it has no experience with, Apple has a proven formula that it can tweak and refine.
The only way Microsoft will come out of this alive, and maybe even the winner, is if it differentiates itself from Apple.
Imagine that the path to computing convergence is a thick jungle. Apple is pushing ahead, gradually and sensibly chopping away with a machete and occasionally discovering hidden treasures in (oc)cult temples. The path is only wide enough for one, with no possibility of Microsoft (or Samsung or Google) squeezing past. If Microsoft walks in Apple’s shadow, which so many other companies have done — if it tries to imitate Apple — it will lose. If Microsoft can forge its own path, perhaps with a metaphorical tractor or some good ol’ napalm, it could come out on top.
The good news is that Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are shaping up to being very different beasts to OS X and iOS. Microsoft won’t have the chance to prove that its path to convergence is better than Apple’s until they launch, though — and a lot can happen between now and fall. The iPad 3 and iOS 5.1 are due to be announced any day now, and the Apple iTV should appear before Windows 8, too.
Copyright © 2010 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.