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Alan Zisman on the Mac

Microsoft's Windows 8 Tablet Strategy May Lead to Massive Buyer Confusion

- 2012.06.26 - Tip Jar

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While most of the buzz these days goes to mobile systems, smartphones, and tablets, most of the real work continues to get done on larger, more traditional desktop and laptop computers, nearly all running (in descending order of market share) Windows, Mac OS X, or some variety of Linux.

Mac OS X 10.8

And whether you're ready or not, new operating system versions are coming your way, courtesy of both Microsoft and Apple. Apple's next OS X generation, 10.8 - code-named Mountain Lion - is promised for some time this July. Prerelease versions are made available only to registered Apple developers, so I haven't tried it, but the company publicly demonstrated it in early June.

Like the current OS X 10.7 Lion, it continues Apple's desire to make Macs work more like iPhones and iPads. With the new OS, Macs gain iOS-like reminders, notes, messages, and notifications, and using Apple's free iCloud service, these will be automatically synced between a user's Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Messages can be sent to other Mac or iOS users - like text messages but without involving a cellphone company - and these, too, will be synced between Apple-branded devices.

While Apple is adding iOS-like features to Macs, the systems remain distinct: iPad apps won't run on Macs, and Mac apps won't run on iPads.

Gatekeeper security might make it more difficult for malware to install itself on protected Macs - in exchange for giving Apple, through its App Store, more control over how users get software.

The previous version's iOS-like features were controversial. Some, like the Launchpad screens of program-starting icons, are widely ignored. Others, such as changing trackpad scrolling direction and dropping Save As from program menus, are widely disliked. Mountain Lion's features may prove more popular. Its price - $20 for a licence to download and install it on multiple computers - will be popular.

My advice (before having any hands-on time): If you haven't upgraded from OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, you probably shouldn't rush into this, but if you're running 10.7 Lion, this will (hopefully) be a more polished version.

Windows 8

Like Apple, Microsoft's Windows 8, which won't be officially released until the fall (November, perhaps) aims to make traditional laptops and desktops act more like mobile systems. Unlike Apple, Microsoft is giving preview copies of Windows 8 to anyone who wants to try it. A developer's preview was released (and not just to developers) last fall. It was followed by a consumer preview in February and a release preview in May.

Also unlike Apple, Windows 8 is designed to run on tablets as well as more standard PCs.

It's a risky strategy. Microsoft has taken the tile-based Metro interface used on its positively reviewed (but not particularly strong-selling) Windows 7 Phones and made it the basis of Windows 8. The result is finger-friendly for touchscreen tablets but a steep learning curve for keyboard/mouse users. I've tried out the various previews on traditional systems; despite improvements from earlier previews, the latest version continues to feel awkward to me.

But even on tablets, Windows 8 will face issues. Expect two families of tablets running Win 8. Some will be based on the same sort of Intel or AMD processors used in standard PCs; these will be able to run the huge library of old-style Windows applications - but those applications won't be optimized for fingers and touchscreens.

Other tablets will use ARM-style processors (like Apple's iPad and Android tablets). While these offer much-improved battery life, they won't be backwards compatible with older Windows software - only new applications specifically designed for Windows 8's Metro will run. The potential result: Massive buyer confusion. Many home and business buyers skipped Windows Vista (released in 2006) to stick with Win XP (2001). My suspicion: This time around large numbers are going to want to stick with Windows 7 (2009).

Linux Also Moving Forward

Apple and Microsoft are not the only ones creating operating systems for traditional personal computers. The various distributions of open-source Linux continue to evolve. With new versions every six months, Ubuntu may be the most popular desktop Linux distribution. The latest, version 12.04 is easy to install and use. It also boasts long-term support and is free. (Android, a free mobile version of Linux, has become a significant force in smartphones and tablets.) LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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