The Future of Microsoft, Apple, and Google

Posted Sunday January 27, 2013 at 1:44:42 pm in Technology

Apple is trying to plant iOS elements in OS/X. Google is trying to merge Android and Chrome OS. Microsoft is trying to make a consistent UI across all of their devices.

That, in a nutshell, is the current state of operating systems from the Big 3. I leave out Linux (Ubuntu) because their marketshare is irrelevant at this point. Their phone OS isn't due out for another year or so, Ubuntu tablets are virtually non existent, and the laptop/desktop market is erratic at best. So, we'll focus on the Big 3: Microsoft, Apple, and Google.

I've spoke with people that think Microsoft shouldn't be pushing the Modern UI across all Windows 8 (including RT) devices. They think that the form factors vary across the board and should be catered to appropriately. I argue that Microsoft is catering to them appropriately, albeit making the Modern UI more front and center on devices where users may only use it 5-10% of the time (for now, until more apps come to the Windows Store).

I wrote an article on the future of Microsoft here. The main point of it being that Windows 8 (and its essence: the Modern UI) is the new direction of Microsoft. It aims to do 2 things: unify the design language across all devices (gaming, laptop, desktop, tablet, server, and even phone) and at the same time push the company to do faster, more iterative development to keep those UI's up to date. It's a big gamble, but with 90%+ marketshare in a very key market and a booming mobile market...it's very necessary.

Anyways, now with that little precursor it's time to focus on each of the Big 3 and their tactics. 

Apple

OS/X marketshare prior to iOS was something in the 3-5% range depending on what stat report you read. They were a profitable company due to high profit margins on their devices (see: premium image) and iTunes. But by all accounts the company was stagnant. It had been focused on the iPod rage (you know, the product that saved them)  for far too long. They needed something to make them more relevant than being the media device of choice and having a small marketshare in desktops/laptops.

Enter: the iPhone.

Not to harp too much on the iPhone. We can speak all day of whether it was a revolutionary device or not. Truth be told RIM, Microsoft, and Nokia all rested on their laurels and allowed the iPhone to happen. The functionality on the phone wasn't anything new. It was a smart phone, but it was easy to use and touch was simpler to use than its competition. It was intuitive. And it looked great.

We all should know the history after the release. Google bought Android and scrapped the UI to make it more like iPhone OS (later renamed to iOS). Don't believe me? Just search for what Android looked like prior to Google buying the company. It looked like a Blackberry OS. Either way, the first Android device (the HTC Dream, otherwise known as the T-Mobile G1) came out in October of 2008. Nearly a year and a half after the release of the iPhone (June 2007). Google saw Apple locked into the AT&T carrier and wanted to release an OS like the iPhone but open source and largely available to the various carriers.

In 2008, Microsoft revamped the Windows Mobile team to start work on a new OS: Windows Phone. It was to be released in 2009, but ended up being pushed to 2010. November 2010. Essentially 2 full years after Android and 3 and a half after the iPhone. And now you know why it took so long for Microsoft's Windows Phone to finally catch up (in terms of features/functionality) with Android and the iPhone.

As for RIM? They're still spinning their wheels. A full 5 and a half years after the release of the iPhone. Good grief.

Nokia ditched Symbian (their last phone being the Pureview 808) and are now exclusively creating Windows Phone hardware and apps.

In 2010, another product came out from Apple. The iPad. Once again, it was not a revolutionary product in terms of what it was or what it did. Tablets existed for nearly a decade before the iPad. Even Windows XP had a tablet OS (Windows XP Tablet PC Edition released in 2002). The difference, once again, being ease of use, portability, and battery life. Apple saw the netbook market and wanted it. But instead of trying to attack with a similar product (the original Macbook Air was very, very expensive...exactly the opposite of a netbook)....they tried to revive the tablet niche market. And that they did. It was no longer a niche market. It was now a market that pushed a product that would be supplemental to a user's laptop or desktop (and in a ton of consumer's hands).

So, here we are in 2013. The iPad is starting to cannibalize Mac products. Apple created Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion to try and "iOS'ize" OS/X....and by most accounts the operating system (and the hardware) has become a second class citizen to Apple. After all, iOS and the iPhone/iPad were now the darling of Apple. Just look at where their profits come from. 

And just to add some substance: by "iOS'ize" OS/X, I mean that Apple has tried to make the experience on OS/X somewhat similar to iOS:

  • Inverted scrolling (same scrolling as iOS) is on by default
  • Notifications like that of iOS
  • Launchpad (grid of icons a la iOS)
  • App Store for OS/X
  • Full screen apps
  • ...and others

But by most accounts, it was a very conservative approach by Apple. There still aren't touchscreen OS/X devices made by Apple. OS/X and iOS are very much different OS's with different UI paradigms (some similar), etc.

Google

The search giant who bought Android, reshaped it to fight (and some think: copy) the iPhone, has had a very short life when it comes to consumer grade operating systems. Put quite simply: most only care about Android and Chrome OS. 

For Chrome OS, it was announced in July 2009, but wasn't made open source until November 2009. The open source version of the operating system is called Chromium OS and can actually be downloaded and compiled by users freely. Chrome OS, on the other hand, only ships on specific hardware from Google's manufacturers.

As for hardware, on December 2010 the first distributed Chromebook was released, called the CR-48:

By most accounts, it was a very clean piece of hardware with a very clumsy OS. The first two commercially available Chromebooks were to be released in June 2011 made by Acer and Samsung. These products were marketed poorly with an OS that was still incomplete. 

It wasn't until mid-late 2012 when Chrome OS started getting more attention due to a marketing push by Google and its manufacturers. Oh, and a very cheap price: some starting at $250.

But what about the comment above about Chrome OS and Android being different OS's...but eventually merging/converging? Well, from Wikipedia:

Google has suggested that the two operating systems address different markets, mobile and personal computing, which remain distinct despite the growing convergence of the devices. Google co-founder Sergey Brin suggested that the two systems "will likely converge over time."

They do address different markets. But that's largely because they were started at different times to address different markets from the beginning: Android for smartphones, Chrome OS as a cheap laptop alternative that relied on a permanent internet connection to be useful.

But why didn't Google use Chrome OS as the basis for their tablet offerings? Well, for one it simply wasn't ready. But if you get to the real issue: it's because across the world the internet is unstable and largely unpredictable in terms of connectivity, availability, and performance. Chrome OS does have offline capabilities, but for it to be truly useful (as an alternative for other products) it needs an internet connection.

As for apps? Apps really are "websites" in the sense that they utilize web based technologies (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.). The ongoing battle of native vs. web continues on. One reason being monetization, and the other being performance and availability. HTML5's (and the typical web stack of HTML, CSS, JS) specification still isn't complete (i.e. being a Recommendation) and won't be until the end of 2014.

What does this mean? Well, it doesn't mean that browsers don't have HTML5 capabilities. What it does mean is that each browser manufacturer rolls with their own implementation. Yes, this means that "web standards" are still a joke. Yes, this means that browsers wars are still going on...and even more so now that we have mobile browsers to tend to.

But that brief recap is why Google didn't utilize Chrome OS on tablet devices. Android has the apps, the developers, the "stability", and the market acceptance. And while Google tried to make Android tablet friendly with Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and Ice Cream Sandwich, those efforts were largely failures. It wasn't until Jelly Bean that Android started to somewhat shine as a tablet OS. And let's not get ahead of ourselves: it still isn't perfect. And it still isn't iOS. But Google finally has some marketshare in the tablet market.

Microsoft

As for Microsoft, they're an interesting company. They have a boatload of money due to them being in so many markets which are largely profitable: Office, Azure, Windows, Xbox, Skype, etc. They're a company who used to move very slowly due to the number of layers and minimal collaboration across divisions. Collaboration and removal of layers that impeded progress and communication really didn't improve until around 2007/2008. It took some time for their services to collaborate with their various frameworks (Windows Phone, Windows, etc.) and even still they need to improve. But instead of moving very slowly, they're moving at a brisk walk kind of pace. But hey, that's a blog post for another day.

For Microsoft, their biggest issues over the last 5 years (since the release of the iPhone and largely even before) have been the following: resting on their laurels with Windows Mobile and collaboration across frameworks. Not being proactive in the mobile market allowed the iPhone to take the market by storm. It took them a year or so after the release of the iPhone to ditch Windows Mobile. It took them nearly 3 1/2 years after the release of the iPhone to release Windows Phone. That was really screwing the pooch. But that's history, and luckily for Microsoft they have an OS with Windows Phone 8 that is a viable alternative the iPhone and Android. It's finally starting to gain traction. 

As for the lack of collaboration? That has been steadily improving over the years. SkyDrive is now integrated with Windows 8, Windows Phone, on the web, available across a variety of OS's (Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Windows, etc.). Microsoft purchased Skype, retired Live Messenger, and now have a legit competitor to FaceTime which has a ton more marketshare. Office is available on Windows RT, Windows, the web, and apparently being developed for iOS and Android. Zune has been retired (in namesake), only to be revitalized as the Xbox name by way of Xbox Music and Video which is available on Xbox, Windows, and Windows Phone. Your Windows Live account is now a Microsoft account and is used as the central account for Windows 8 and Windows Phone, etc. It took time, but the foundation and hard work is finally there.

But what does this all mean? Well, Microsoft being 3 and a half years late to the game with Windows Phone caused them to fall to 3rd place in marketshare with smartphones. It also caused them to not have the developer support that they enjoy with their Windows platform. 

With the release of the iPad in 2010, Microsoft once again fell behind in an important market. The iPad was released in April 2010, it wasn't until October 26th, 2012 that Microsoft had an OS that was a true touch based OS and not some bandaid on an existing OS (see: XP, Vista, and Windows 7). 2 and a half years late to the game. But the one thing that Microsoft had going for it with Windows 8 that it didn't have with Windows Phone?

A ridiculous market share. 90%+, over a billion PC's, etc. You can read my "Windows 8 Defines the New Direction of Microsoft" article for more information. How best to tap into that to make developing for Windows 8 enticing?

Make the Windows Store available on all Windows 8 devices. And make the Modern UI which houses the Windows Store the immediate forefront of every device. By doing this it accomplishes a variety of things:

  • It further popularizes the Modern UI which is used on Xbox, Windows Phone, web, and now Windows.
  • By popularizing the design paradigm, it makes it more acceptable to consumers.
  • By making it more acceptable to consumers, it makes it more enticing to developers
  • 90%+ marketshare makes the Modern UI an instant target for developers. On release of Windows 8, they had more apps in the Windows Store than the iPad had on its release in the App Store.
  • With Windows Phone 8 using the same core as Windows 8, it makes creating apps for both platforms easier than the past, and even makes porting apps easier for developers. This should be a boom for Windows Phone.

Now, we can chat back and forth about whether or not you like the Modern UI on non gesture/touch based devices, but truth be told it's early. It's apparent that Microsoft looks at touch as another form of input..and the future. And I have to agree. Using my Macbook Pro with Windows 8 after using the Surface makes me wish it had a touchscreen. But the point is that you have a choice as a laptop/desktop/etc. owner that doesn't have gestures or touch. Just don't use the Modern UI unless you want to. And I find myself wanting to even not having a touchscreen.

If there's one thing Microsoft is doing for the first time since Xbox Live, it's revolutionizing the industry. It's making touch a first class citizen in a desktop OS and unifying an OS across all form factors by making the Modern UI the first thing you see. It's a big bet, but it was a necessary first step. 

Quick Comparisons

So this is where I wrap things up. And hopefully quickly. Apple is taking a conservative approach by slowly adding iOS features to OS/X, but it fails by not expediting this process and making touch a first class citizen in the OS. There was talk that there'd be touch OS/X devices for years now. It hasn't come to fruition.

Google wants to converge Android and Chrome OS, but they need connectivity to be always (or nearly always) available and highly performant. They also need the web to standardize faster and developers to move away from native applications. Google is doing their best to make Android less smartphonish and more utilitarian across multiple form factors, but it's not quite there. This is the same as people that try to make iOS more utilitarian by way of keyboard. Both of these OS's still aren't as capable as Windows or OS/X.

Microsoft had to either be proactive (news flash, duh, they weren't) or react quickly with a plan to make the Modern UI accepted and accessible across all of their devices. Instead of take the conservative approach a la Apple, they went all out. The Modern UI is in your face across all form factors: desktop, laptop, tablet, all-in -ones, and hybrids. This is done to make the UI more popular and also to entice developers. 

But we're getting to the point that each of the Big 3 are finally trying to converge their OS's across desktop, entertainment, mobile, and web. Some are moving more slowly: Apple. Some are moving more quickly (for once): Microsoft. And some are going about it a bit differently: Google. 

Either way, 2013 is shaping up to be a very, very interesting year for operating systems and design paradigms.

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view