Apple and Google and Microsoft (oh my!) : Observations on Windows 8 and the State of Modern Personal Computing

For those who have the money to buy in, the modern personal computing inventory currently consists of three items:

  1. A smartphone.
  2. A tablet.
  3. A laptop.
Some people have a fourth device in the form of a "legacy" desktop computer, but desktops are regularly being replaced with laptops these days, often with some sort of docking station solution that allows for a larger display and a more comfortable keyboard/mouse setup. 

The three companies currently contending tooth and nail for a share of your computing device dollars are Google, Apple, and Microsoft. All three companies are involved in all three categories of the personal computing inventory mentioned above, but one of these companies is going about it quite differently from the other two. 

Apple has been very successful going after consumers with its relatively small portfolio of computing devices, each of which is powered by one of a pair of operating systems: OS X for "traditional" laptops and desktops, and iOS on Apple's tablets and smartphones. While there has been some feature creep between the two OSes (mostly in the form of successful applications porting over to the other platform; iWork to iOS, iBooks to OS X is an example of this), there is still a clear line of separation between OS X and iOS. iOS is meant for small devices with more modest internal hardware that still offer some measure of productive capability, while OS X is the operating system for desktops and laptops that are designed to do more "heavy lifting" in conventional content creation scenarios. 

This same strategy has been adopted by Google. Although there is some noise being made about creating Android-powered laptops, Google itself has defined two operating systems for two specific use cases: Chrome OS for laptops (and a few novelty mini-PC desktops), and Android for tablets and smartphones. Both operating systems rely heavily on Google's web services and cloud storage, but Chrome OS-powered Chromebook laptops still offer a more traditional "desk computing" experience, whereas Android tablets and smartphones are still primarily associated with content consumption, rather than creation. 

Which brings us to Microsoft, and a very interesting deviation in the strategies employed by Apple and Google.

(Note: I am leaving Windows RT out of this discussion, because it is an OS designed for a clear use case, and its existence doesn't contradict the observations that follow. I have written about Windows RT before, and likely will again because I think it is a good idea that deserves to continue to live. But, I digress.)

Microsoft has a smartphone OS, Windows Phone, which after much stumbling and painful iteration has finally evolved (with the impending consumer release of Windows Phone 8.1) into a viable competitor with Android and iOS when it comes to smartphones. 

But, when it came to tablets and laptops, Microsoft did something that Google and Apple were unwilling or unable to do: create a single operating system that was capable of powering both classes of devices, across the entire product spectrum of each device category. 

Windows 8 (actually 8.1 as of this writing) is currently installed by OEMs on small handheld tablets with eight-inch screens, ultrabook and powerhouse laptops with 10-18 inch displays, and desktop machines with multiple displays measuring 24" and larger. Windows 8 is Microsoft's answer to the question of having different operating systems for tablets and laptops. Clearly, the folks at Redmond believe that if one OS can do it all, it should. 

And, given the extreme range of devices it is powering, Windows 8 does remarkably well as both a tablet OS and a laptop OS. This variance in functionality has led to a crazy, wonderful menagerie of hybrid devices from vendors, including Lenovo, HP, Sony, and Asus... and Microsoft itself in the form of its Surface product line. 

Rather than splitting its flagship OS into "laptop" and "tablet" versions (something Microsoft has done in the past, achieving little success outside of certain niche industries), Microsoft made an OS that could display a relevant interface depending on what you wanted to do, and what device you were doing it on. By doing this, Microsoft avoided creating a new fragmentation issue across its inventory, a painful problem that Android currently suffers from in a major way... while Apple, who aggressively discontinues both hardware and software on a regular basis, has less of a fragmentation issue with iOS and OS X.

The design of Windows 8 was a bold move, a progressive decision that could have captured the hearts and minds of consumers and the enterprise... if its intentions had been communicated better. 

If the first consumer version of Windows 8 had actually been 8.1 (update 1), I think the response from the public and the tech press would have been different. The incremental improvements made since its initial release have made Windows 8 much better, and the communication surrounding why it is the way it is (one user experience across multiple platforms) and how to configure it to suit your personal workflows and style has improved as well. 

Clearly, Microsoft is playing catch-up with Google and Apple in the tablet and smartphone market. The good news is that after years of obfuscation and strategic mumbling, Microsoft seems to have a clear and presentable strategy, and a new leadership team willing to play the long game. While Google is dealing with increased government scrutiny and interference, and Apple continues to huddle up in its "wait and see" development cycle, Microsoft should have the opportunity to secure its 3rd place standing, and then see if it can close ground on the frontrunners. 

- Aaron Axline

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