One size fits all? The convergence of desktop and mobile operating systems

2012 is a momentous year in the history of desktop operating systems - a year when the ‘Windows Icon Menu Pointer’ paradigm that has dominated user-interfaces for three decades looks set to be rendered all but obsolete. Make no mistake: both Apple and Microsoft have set off on a path towards convergence, where desktop operating systems look and feel like tablet operating systems, and are designed with touch input in mind. It’s not a move that suits everyone. In fact, you’d struggle to find a tech site or forum that doesn’t have someone lashing out at the new Metro interface of Windows 8, or the encroachment of iOS influences on OS X 10.8, Mountain Lion. Why, then, are the biggest names in OS development so determined to tablet-ize their products? Do they really believe that one style of UI works for all?

What is changing?

If you’ve been using the consumer preview or release preview of Windows 8, then you’re already aware of how dramatic the change can be. Windows 8 sees the conventional desktop squeezed out of its primary position and relegated to – effectively – an alternative interface. You can’t really get to the old Windows desktop without going through Metro first. When you see Windows 8 it’s not the Windows desktop that you see, but the touchscreen-friendly, tile-based interface pioneered by Windows Phone 7.

With no taskbar, no Start button and no windows, Windows 8’s Metro interface is designed to run across tablets, laptops and PCs, with the tiles on its Start screen designed to provide snippets of information, focused on people and on activities rather than on old-fashioned documents, files and applications. It’s an interface built to give information at a glance, without necessarily even opening an app. As Jensen Harris, Microsoft’s Director of Program Management for the Windows User Experience team, describes it in a late-May Building Windows 8 blog, the Start screen is “a personalized dashboard of everything you care about. Your whole computing experience has the potential to be encapsulated in one view. A view that you organize and control.”

Applications, meanwhile, are getting simpler. Think less chrome, fewer functions, features, buttons, widgets, gadgets. As Harris notes, “This is different than traditional desktop programs, which often contain hundreds of loosely-related, powerful, but hard-to-find features. Windows 8 apps focus on being great at something, or a few things, and really delivering a great experience for those targeted scenarios.”

Apple isn’t going quite so far. Despite frequent rumours and speculation about a merge, OS X and iOS look set to develop concurrently, with Tim Cook’s oft-reported comment that “you can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but you know, those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user”. As Cook added in his February Wall Street Journal interview, “You wouldn’t want to put these things together because you end up compromising in both.”

Windows 8’s Start screen is designed as an all-in dashboard, providing live, at-a-glance info straight from the cloud.

Yet Apple has still been upfront in bringing elements of iOS to OS X. Last year’s Lion update bought us the iPad-styled LaunchPad and a full-screen application view that owed much more to iOS than to Windows. This year’s Mountain Lion update replaces the old iCal, iChat and Address Book apps with Calendar, Messages and Contacts apps that mirror those of iOS, then throws on features like the Notification Centre, AirPlay mirroring and Twitter integration that put OS X in step with iOS. It might not be a unification of operating systems on the scale of Microsoft’s, but Apple’s aim is clearly to bridge the gap between the iOS and OS X experiences.

Why the change?

What thinking lies behind this shift? Doesn’t the classic WIMP desktop work perfectly well? Well, maybe, but the way we’re using computers is changing, and the computers we’re choosing to use are changing too. If you like, blame the popularity of the iPhone and iPad. In 2011 alone, more iOS devices were sold (156 million) than Macs in Apple’s history. In February, Apple’s Tim Cook announced that 55 million iPads had been sold in just two years. At a time when PC and laptop sales remain in the doldrums, this simply can’t be ignored.

And Microsoft isn’t ignoring it, as Jensen Harris makes clear: “the kinds of PCs people are buying are rapidly moving towards mobile form factors like laptops and tablets, and away from traditional desktops. While powerful desktops will remain the form factor of choice for people who want to squeeze every ounce of performance out of a highly modular and extensible PC (for example video editors, financial analysts, scientists, gamers, PC enthusiasts…), most people want to have light, portable PCs.”

Windows 8 hooks straight in to the world of cloud-based services, using SkyDrive as a hub in which to share photos, documents and information.

Microsoft understands that a set of users still need an old-school WIMP UI to run productivity,creative and programming applications, hence Harris’ comment that “We do not view the desktop as a mode, legacy or otherwise—it is simply a paradigm for working that suits some people and specific apps.” However, it no longer regards these users as the majority. It’s the same thinking behind Apple’s talk of a post-PC world. As Tim Cook said back in February, “We’re talking about a world where the PC is no longer the center of your digital world, but is just another device… The devices you use the most are more portable, more personal and dramatically easier to use than any PC has ever been.”

Connected by the Cloud

Of course, it’s not just the desire for more mobile and accessible hardware that’s driving this move towards the ‘one size fits all’ interface, but the growing ubiquity of the cloud. At the start of the PC era the application was all-important, and as time went on it ceded some of this focus to the document or file. Even in the new era this isn’t diminished – plenty of us will still be working on Word documents, Excel spreadsheets or digital camera RAW files. What has changed, however, is the increased prominence of Web 2.0 and cloud-based services, whether Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, LinkedIn, Flickr, Google Docs or Office 365. Even in the corporate sphere, Software as a Service (SaaS) products are becoming just as, if not more important than conventional applications.

This is what Metro apps look like – no chrome, fewer features and gadgets, and with the emphasis on touch-friendly accessibility.

In the new world of Windows 8 and Mountain Lion, the cloud becomes the point at which all these services, all our personal and work interactions and all our files and data gets integrated and synchronised across all our devices. If you want evidence, just look at how Apple has moved away from iTunes as the point of transfer to iCloud.

And the more we use the same data and access the same services from different devices, the more we want to be able to use and access them in much the same way. Microsoft wants us to be able to move from Windows Phone 8 on our smartphone to Windows RT on our tablet to Windows 8 on our laptop PC without feeling any great disruption to the look and feel. Similarly, Apple hopes we will want the apps and tools we’re familiar with on our iPhone and iPad on an OS X MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, and that we’ll be willing to pay the premium for the privilege.

Beneath the Surface

Of course, there’s one key problem for Microsoft here (and, to a lesser extent, Apple). We all know that Windows 8 should work well with tablets – and that the ARM-specific Windows RT is designed specifically for them. However, for all Microsoft’s talk to the contrary, Windows 8 still feels designed with a touchscreen interface in mind. Sure, there are shortcuts while using the mouse, and certain gestures work on laptop touchpads or touch-capable graphics tablets, but – at least as far as the previews show - this is still a user interface that functions best with a touchscreen, not on the Windows PC as most of us know it today.

Surface isn’t just a Microsoft tablet, but Microsoft’s attempt to make the tablet something more – a showcase for where Touch can take Windows in the future.

It’s Microsoft’s belief that touch will eventually become ubiquitous. As Jensen Harris says in the Building Windows 8 blog, “Touch is an incredibly important long-term bet for us. For an increasingly large number of people over time, it will be the primary way they interact with Windows. And for the vast majority of users, it will eventually be used alongside mouse and keyboard to complete their experience.” Harris even goes on to add that “In a decade (or probably less,) we will look back at this transition period and say to each another “Hey, do you remember how PC screens didn’t used to be touchable? Wow, isn’t that weird to think about now?””

Now, there are ways to use touch with current hardware. There are several good touchscreen all-in-one PCs available, plus a handful of touchscreen laptops. You can buy a touchscreen monitor, or gain some gesture functionality through a large-format touchpad or graphics tablet.

Yet it’s Microsoft’s new Surface tablet that shows the company’s ultimate ambition for touch. Surface works first and foremost as a hardware showcase for Windows RT and Windows 8, and with its lightweight form factor, touchscreen and detachable keyboard cover, it’s the clearest indication of Microsoft’s overall vision for the future of computing. Surface - particularly the high-end Surface Pro - isn’t just a tablet that can double as a laptop, but a new type of computer designed to integrate the world of touch, keyboard and mouse/touchpad together. Microsoft doesn’t see the future in Intel’s non-touch Ultrabooks, but in a new form factor that embraces touch.

By taking familiar iOS apps and UI elements to OSX, Apple is trying to bring its mobile and desktop operating systems together.

Whether or how well this can scale up to larger form factors remains to be seen, and we still have little idea where technologies like Kinect, voice recognition and eyeball tracking might figure in Windows 8, or beyond. All the same, the thinking is clear: mobile computing is the solution for the masses, and touchscreen and tablet-style interfaces are the solution for mobile.

For Apple, the thinking is a little more cautious. While Apple holds patents for touchscreen technology, it has yet to announce any touchscreen MacBook or iMac products, and Tim Cook was dismissive of touchscreen desktops in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, stating that “this kind of reach for me isn’t a terribly intuitive thing.” For now, Apple seems content to take elements of iOS to OS X, combining them with existing gesture support, without necessarily making touch an integral part of the desktop OS.

Vive Le Resistance?

It’s easy to understand the resistance to Metro in some quarters, particularly from power users. Those of us who need multiple windows and use multiple displays, those of us who want the speed and accuracy of mouse and keyboard, will still cleave to a desktop OS. This is something Microsoft understands, and while elements of Windows 8 will still gall – like the removal of the Start menu, the documents shortcut and a speedy shutdown option – at least we have the option. Windows 7 isn’t going anywhere, and it’s still possible that, with the final Windows 8 release, Microsoft might deliver a compelling desktop experience that can convince desktop die-hards to upgrade. If it can’t, then there are other options. Ubuntu is gaining strength and experimenting with user interface enhancements, like the HUD, that target more power users – and other Linux distributions are doing the same.

Yet it might be time to face facts: just as those who pooh-poohed the iPad have had to accept that plenty of satisfied customers might not agree, so those of us who feel hostile towards OS convergence might one day have to face the possibility that we don’t represent the masses. Microsoft is betting the farm on its vision of lightweight computers that can be all things to all people, and a user interface that sweeps out the old ways and brings live tiles, at a glance information and simplified computing. Only time will tell if this is a mistake, or not.