Apple released the latest major upgrade to its desktop operating system, OS X Mountain Lion, earlier this week. Also this week Microsoft announced the release date of Windows 8, the massive overhaul to Microsoft's platform that finally makes Windows friendly to tablets, coming October 26.
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After a period where both OSes were remarkably similar, they're now more different than they've been in a long time. Of course, Windows 8 won't be final for a few months, but the Release Preview has been available since the end of May, and the feature set is very close to finished.
With Mountain Lion serving as the anchor on the Mac side, it bears a new look at how the two OSes hold up against each other.
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Similar Goal, Different Approach
Broadly, both systems are trying to achieve a similar goal — making the desktop experience more seamless with mobile devices — but they do so with somewhat different philosophies. Apple is borrowing many of the more popular features of its wildly popular iOS platform (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches), building desktop versions of some iOS apps (like Messages) and integrating other useful features that first appeared on mobile (like AirPlay Mirroring).
Microsoft, on the other hand, adopts a more holistic approach, revamping Windows in its entirety to make it friendly to both desktops and mobile devices like tablets and laptop hybrids (which "transform" into tablets). It's the same OS in both places.
That leads to some big gaps in what each OS does, though the goal is the same: Give consumers a comprehensive ecosystem that fulfills as many of their needs as possible without going outside of it. In this comparison, I looked specifically at four factors:
- Personal Apps
- Cloud Services
Let's get started, and remember: While Mountain Lion is for sale now, Windows 8 isn't final yet, and some aspects may change before its release this fall.
Mountain Lion builds sharing right into the OS, letting you share things (like websites, videos, etc.) from individual apps. Apple's Safari browser is the app that best showcases this ability, where users can call up a drop-down menu of sharing methods (such as Twitter or email and, soon, Facebook).
Even better is how Apple’s Mail app works with Safari to improve sharing… if you’re sharing a URL, the app will ask if you want to share just the link, the entire web page, the Reader version of the page (which strips out photos, ads, and the like), or a PDF of the page. Nice.
Windows 8 sharing is arguably superior, with Share being one of the five "charms" on the system's main menu, which users can call up at any time, in any app. Just click or touch Share and Windows will immediately call up a list of apps that will let you share.
For now, that list is pretty limited (typically just Outlook), but when Windows 8 launches, you can expect heavyweights like Facebook and Twitter to be involved. Bonus: The apps you use most often to share will be at the top of your list.
Both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 put the power to share in the hands of app developers. If you're developing an app for either OS, you can designate content that's shareable. On OS X, however, it's up to the developer to create the button or drop-down menu for sharing, while on Windows 8, it's hard-wired into the interface.
That gives Windows 8 and edge, though it's up to developers to take advantage of it.
2. Personal Apps
Both platforms have a suite of personal apps for connecting with people and staying organized. Apple Messages replaces iChat and integrates your messages from iPhone and iPad into one place. The new Reminders app similarly works with its mobile versions, and the Calendar of course syncs with your mobile devices via iCloud (not a new feature), as does Contacts (the new Address Book).
Windows 8 has similar apps that they work similarly, but with important differences. Microsoft's version of Contacts (called People) can tie into Facebook, and shows you "What's New" with the people you interact with.
Also, Windows 8′s Messaging app connects only with Windows Live Messenger and Facebook. While other services may join that list in the general release, it’s worth pointing out Facebook isn’t an option with Mountain Lion’s Messages (for now).
The full capabilities of both OSes won't be realized until the fall. Obviously, Windows 8 won't be officially out until then, and that's the same time iOS 6 should launch, which will make Messages work better with iPhones and iPads (there are still some issues with text messages that Apple is ironing out).
Still, the edge goes to Apple here for its well thought-out integration of the mobile side of things.
Microsoft puts photos front and center in Windows 8 with an app called simply Photos. It doesn't just show photos stored locally on your drive -- it can also tie into Facebook, Flickr and photos you store in the cloud via SkyDrive.
Apple, of course, packages iPhoto with every Mac. iPhoto is a basic image organizer and editor, and it can also import all the images you take on your iOS devices, thanks to iCloud. Facebook and Flickr integration is limited to exporting.
Still, Apple’s app is more powerful than Microsoft’s (those basic editing abilities make a big difference), although Windows still comes with the Paint app if you need to edit. It comes down to differing goals here — Photos aims to be a simple hub for accessing and sharing all your photos, whereas iPhoto is more of a centralized command center for your photo collection.
Until Microsoft expands the number of services it can tie into, Apple wins again.
4. Cloud Services
Looking at the cloud services between Windows 8 and Mountain Lion is really an apples-to-oranges comparison. Whereas SkyDrive has a visible file structure, and users can upload whatever they want, iCloud is more of a syncing service, ensuring certain types of content in one place show up in another.
SkyDrive provides an extremely capable service for saving documents to the cloud (similar to Google Drive), and it's built into many key apps. Office 2013 will use SkyDrive as the default place to save documents, letting you access them from anywhere, on any machine. It also allows for Microsoft to update things like document templates at anytime.
With Mountain Lion, iCloud now syncs documents in the cloud as well, and of course it still syncs photos, contacts, calendars and the like across all your devices. However, iCloud has some serious limits. It doesn't yet sync videos, and its calendars aren't shared in the same way as other services (like Google Calendar), so they're not as easy to integrate. Also, there's no file structure that users can access.
As for which is better, it depends on which philosophy best matches your life and workflow. Would you rather have your own "locker" where you can put anything you want? Or would you rather not worry about where anything is, and just let your system handle it -- with the tradeoff being a more limited set of apps being able to sync through the cloud? Both approaches have merit.
A Fork in the Road
For a long time the computer was more of a standalone device, the primary gateway to a person's digital life. What such a system needed to do was pretty clear, and as a result, Macs and PCs became different flavors of the same computing recipe. Sure they tasted different, but it was still soup.
Although it's often said to be the one thinking different, Apple actually has the more conservative take on computing.
It's a different world now, though, with mobile devices playing a greater and greater role in our lives. Consequently, the two heavyweights in personal computing are diverging once again -- Mountain Lion and Windows 8 are really quite different in their approaches to address the needs of today's digital consumers.
Although it's often said to be the one thinking different, Apple actually has the more conservative take on computing, with Mountain Lion integrating the best aspects of iOS devices. The change with Windows 8 is much more radical, adopting touch, the cloud and an entirely new desktop design (Metro) in an effort to create an OS that works just as well on traditional PCs as tablets.
One big caveat there: The familiar desktop is still around in Windows 8, just a click away. Microsoft is in a sense trying to have its cake and eat it too with Windows 8 -- changing everything, but keeping the old environment if users get skittish.
Is either approach superior to the other? In some ways, yes. Since Apple is changing less with Mountain Lion than Microsoft is with Windows 8, the new OS X feels much more seamless than Windows 8, even when taking into account the bugginess of pre-release software. On the other side, some aspects of Windows 8, like Sharing, feel very powerful, but it's an open question whether their full potential will be unleashed.
What's your take? Will Microsoft's bet on Windows 8 pay off, or does Apple have the better approach? Share your thoughts in the comments.
This story originally published on Mashable here.