The End of Both Desktop OS and Mobile OS is Upon Us

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The end of both the desktop OS and mobile OS is upon us

Investment banking firm Jefferies stated the obvious this week when it issued a report predicting that iOS and Mac OS X will be one operating system by 2016. Nearly a year ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that was his goal in what I playfully dubbed his MiOS strategy. Jobs had just previewed Mac OS X Lion, touting the user interface capabilities it was borrowing from iOS. The forthcoming iOS 5 also takes some UI concepts first released in Lion, but as I'm under NDA with Apple, I can't tell you which ones.

iOS is based on a subset of Mac OS X, so in a very real sense, they always have been the same operating system. As horsepower has improved in mobile devices, Apple has enlarged iOS to take on more of what the desktop Mac OS X could handle, such as more multitasking and more complex graphics and video processing. At the same time, Apple has been steadily pushing gesture-based peripherals -- not just its laptops' gesture-capable touchpads, but also its Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad that bring gesture savvy to any Mac -- in a gentle but persistent re-education of its Mac users.

Over time, you can expect iOS and Mac OS X to borrow more from each other, keeping distinctions appropriate for their distinct use cases. You can expect a continuum of capabilities as the two OSes eventually merge into MiOS (I doubt Apple will call it that, though).

Microsoft is following Apple's strategic lead
The real news here is that it's not just Apple that sees the distinction between a desktop OS and a mobile OS. Microsoft is making exactly the same bet with "Windows 8," its code name for the successor to Windows 7. Windows 8 adopts the generally well-regarded Windows Phone 7 UI, called Metro, and is supposed to run on both computers and tablets. Apple will get there first, as its two OSes already share much in common, whereas Microsoft has two decades of Windows legacy to carry around. Even Windows 8 will run Windows 7 under the hood for backward compatibility -- not just the binaries but even the UI if desired.

That's the plan on the desktop, anyhow -- Microsoft has said that Windows 8 tablets won't run Windows 7 apps, marking a break with the legacy Windows platform that over time Microsoft will have to jettison on the desktop as well. Its approach to separating the legacy from the new OS seems to be to use virtualization to run legacy apps and the legacy OS, at least on desktops and laptops if not tablets.

That virtualization approach is a proven winner: It worked very well for Apple as it first virtualized Mac OS 9 "Classic" apps under Mac OS X (abandoned in Mac OS X Snow Leopard), then as it virtualized its PowerPC architecture to run on Intel chips (the Rosetta technology that Mac OS X Lion finally abandons), and finally as it virtualized archrival Windows in its Boot Camp app to give people a legacy bridge from PCs to Macs.

Microsoft has more work to do than Apple
Beyond the timing difference due to Apple's head start in merging the mobile and desktop OSes, Apple has another advantage over Microsoft in this long-term strategy to merge mobile and desktop OSes into one overarching OS that scales to the device in use: Its UIs don't shift radically in every major version. Every few years, Microsoft reinvents the Windows UI, touting its exhaustive usability research. (Never mind that the research results differ so radically each time!) That has led to lots of embedded code and UI peculiarities that will need major revamping both in Windows and, more critically, in commercial and homegrown apps.

That legacy problem is severe, which is why there are still so many apps that rely on ActiveX and can't be migrated from Internet Explorer 6 to a more recent version. Imagine that relatively simple problem magnified to level of the whole Windows OS. Apple's evolution has been smoother, with fewer disruptions on users and developers -- and Apple has also been unfraid to enforce change it deemed necessary, causing short-term pain but letting the platform evolve more easily over the long term.

Still, it appears that Microsoft's goal is the same as Apple's, and it is giving the concept a real shot in Windows 8. Initially, the plans for Windows 8 are to run on desktops, laptops, and tablets; smartphones would run Windows Phone 7. But I can't imagine that division holding for more than a year or two. After all, Apple has already shown you can create an OS that works across smartophones and talets, and now Google is trying its hand at that with the forthcoming Android OS 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich." (Too bad Google has no desktop OS to merge Android with!)

Today, Microsoft uses the Windows label to refer to a bunch of incompatible OSes. By 2016 or so, that label may in fact refer to one OS that runs on various kinds of devices. Apple will get their first, but the result is the same: The desktop OS will be dead, the mobile OS will be dead, and there will be just the OS.

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This story, "The End of Both Desktop OS and Mobile OS is Upon Us" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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