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Mountain Lion vs. Windows 8: Which OS has the right strategy?

Mobile computing has become an important piece of our digital lives, and nothing could serve as a better illustration of this than the release of new operating systems from both Microsoft and Apple. While we won’t be seeing Windows 8 for another three months, Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion was released to the public last week (see our Mountain Lion review here, and if you’re hungry for more, there’s also our further look at the OS and the 10 biggest changes it introduces to have a peek at).

Both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 intertwine the mobile experience with that of the desktop. With Windows 8, Microsoft has made the choice to unify its entire platform from top to bottom. Windows 8 looks like Windows RT, which looks like Windows Phone 8, and the convergence even extends to the Xbox. In short, the operating system looks, feels, and works the same across all devices.

Redmond sees this as an advantage: Use one Microsoft product, and when you sit in front of another device, you’ll instantly know how to use it. It’s also the reason why touchscreens will likely appear more and more often on desktop and laptop PCs, as obviously the Metro user interface itself is built around touch.

Apple couldn’t see it any more differently, though. The company takes the position that while the operating system should feel the same, it doesn’t necessarily need to work or look the same. CEO Tim Cook put forward that perspective last year during a financial analysts call when he maintained that a unified approach just doesn’t work.

“Anything can be forced to converge,” Cook said of the strategy at the time. “The problem is that the products are about trade-offs. You begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone.”

While some of us – including myself – saw this as a bit of hypocrisy in light of Apple’s moves in Lion and now Mountain Lion to bring iOS features (and to some extent the look) to the desktop, it’s true. Look at Metro. The interface certainly translates better to touch than it does to mouse control. In fact, in the reviews of the user interface I’ve seen, that’s the most common complaint.

(As an aside, I’ve been given a Samsung Series 7 slate with Windows 8 to play with, at the moment. I will tell you I actually prefer Metro over iOS as a touch interface. But on the desktop? Metro kind of sucks. Sorry Microsoft.)

With Mountain Lion, the iOS features brought over to Mac OS X still feel like the iOS apps, but operate like mouse-controlled apps should. This illustrates the difference in strategy here between Microsoft and Apple quite nicely. One is embracing mobile computing wholeheartedly and changing its entire platform as a result, the other keeping it at arm’s length while maintaining the integrity of the traditional desktop.

Who is right? The consumer will decide that in the coming months.