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  • The Microsoft Does it Again Report

    September 16th, 2011

    Years ago, Microsoft would respond to serious competition by assuring everyone that they were working on an even better product. You’d even see it some day, but maybe they could interest you in the stuff they were working on now. This comes across as a classic bait and switch scheme, particularly when those promised products would seldom arrive in the promised condition, and sometimes would never arrive at all.

    Microsoft is very much the opposite of Apple in this respect. When there’s a new product or service under development that they think they can sell, Microsoft will shout it to the rooftops. The media will get early and ongoing previews until it finally ships. This can be a blessing or curse, depending on whether they can fulfill all their promises.

    Apple is notorious for saying little or nothing about future products. Sometimes they will even put down a product category in a very blunt fashion, only to enter that market later on. So we had Steve Jobs poo-poohing the idea of Apple making a mobile handset some years before the iPhone debuted. Well, their excuse would be that they looked at the market, saturated with handsets and smartphones, and had to devise a way to make a difference and make a profit. If they couldn’t, there would have been no iPhone.

    And don’t forget that the Mac mini came out only months after Apple announced, at one of their quarterly conferences with financial analysts, that they would never build a low-cost Mac, and that cheap PCs were junk. At the point, the Mac mini was already in the final stages of preproduction, so they knew full well when it would arrive and where it would stand among cheap personal computers.

    More often than not, however, Apple tells you nothing. Advance previews seldom occur, and when they do, it’s to give developers a chance to make their products compatible. So you’ll always hear about the next version of Mac OS X or the iOS. Besides, once developers get their hands on preview releases, you’ll know about it anyway. Too many developers talk to too many members of the media to stop the practice and, besides, it does generate plenty of hype and anticipation, even though Apple doesn’t say much beyond posting some preview information on their site.

    With Lion, Apple began to meld certain visual features of the iOS in Lion. This sort of thing is to be expected, and it will surely help users of iPhones and iPads migrate to the Mac and find the surroundings easier to grok. Indeed, Mac sales continue to soar past the flagging PC market, so Apple has a good strategy here.

    At the same time, although based on the same core, Mac OS X and the iOS are very different, since they cater to very different markets. On a Mac, you are getting an OS that still adheres to the traditions of graphical operating systems pioneered by Apple in 1984. You have menu bars, you can point and click with your mouse and trackpad, manage a hierarchical file system, and run multiple apps and documents on multiple displays. In observance to those who are becoming very accustomed to touchscreens, there is support for gestures. But merging the two operating systems wouldn’t make sense, since Apple’s Macs and mobile gear are not meant to work the same, and have very different hardware capabilities.

    Microsoft, of course, wants desperately to trump Apple. So what do they do? Well, they have decided to essentially develop a unified version of Windows that will, or should, work essentially the same on a tablet as on a standard personal computer (be it a note-book or desktop). Both will sport a theme inspired by Windows Phone 7 , called Metro, which uses tiles instead of icons in the Start menu to display links to apps, status displays, or just general messages about the services you’re using, such as email, Face-book and Twitter.

    Dubbed Windows 8, in theory this OS will work well on the standard Intel and AMD processors, plus the ARM processors installed inside hundreds of millions of mobile gadgets, including the iPhone and iPad. There will also be a new class of Web-based apps that are supposed to adhere to current standards, such as HTML5, and run on all supported platforms. How traditional apps will fare is murkier, though I suppose Microsoft’s developer tools would be updated to allow you to compile an app for either or both processor families. That’s similar to Apple’s original Universal app scheme, designed to support the PowerPC and Intel.

    Of course, Apple knows how to develop apps to function on different processors, along with emulators to serve as a crutch for customers and developers until most software is updated for the new chips. But this is new territory for Microsoft, having used AMD and Intel hardware for years. Also, it’s not at all certain how well a full-bore Windows 8 will run on ARM, or how easy it will be to get regular Windows software to function efficiently.

    This week’s demonstrations involved giving reporters tablets that used regular Intel-based parts. ARM-based hardware wasn’t distributed, although Microsoft boasts that Windows 8 will work just fine. But it’s also true that the developer preview has huge processor demands, causing the demonstration tablets to run hot. They were also equipped with hefty batteries because of the system’s huge power requirements.

    So is Windows 8 just another Microsoft vaporware scheme to deflect interest from Apple? When 2012 arrives, will Microsoft’s promises of an all-in-one OS be fulfilled in the real world? Perhaps, in one form or another, but I expect some of the claims being made now will be shown to be, shall we say, a little shaky.

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