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Should Apple Respond to Microsoft’s Big Bet?

A recent article from one of my long-time colleagues, Peter Cohen of iMore, started me thinking about the various approaches taken by Microsoft and Apple towards operating system releases. Up till now, a new OS was an event. There would be full-blown media events, often accompanied by advertising, and tech writers would often be granted early access to get the buzz out.

Microsoft would offer public previews, or betas, to give customers an early crack and what they were working on. In 2014, Apple expanded an existing public beta program to deliver OS X seeds to over one million Mac users.

But success of new versions of Windows has been hit or miss. Windows XP and Windows 7 were extremely successful; the former still has a double digit share of the market even though Microsoft withdrew support many months ago. Windows Vista bombed. With Windows 8/8.1, Microsoft made all the wrong decisions and the public reacted accordingly. Indeed, many of the serious problems were reported during the public preview process, but Microsoft was tone deaf.

Windows 10 is supposed to fix all that was bad, while still retaining the tiles and overwrought colors introduced in Windows 8. The Start menu is back in all its glory, and Microsoft’s copying machines picked up a few hints from OS X, such as multiple desktops and an app/document display window reminiscent of Mission Control.

Microsoft also claims that Windows 10 will, essentially, be the last major release. As with Adobe’s cloud-based apps, there will be periodic rolling updates with some new features. There won’t be one monolithic reference release. This approach will also mean that IT departments won’t have to disrupt their workflows and go through extensive testing deploying major upgrades. Supposedly. On the other hand, each rolling release will still require testing to make sure new and changed features don’t break something. It’ll just happen on a smaller scale, though more frequently.

Now a downside of this new approach is that you won’t be rushing to a consumer electronics store, or Amazon, to buy a Windows upgrade. If you already have Windows 7 or later, Windows 10 will be a free download for the first year. It’s possible Microsoft will just charge for them after that, This is just a scheme to push early updates. But why aren’t Windows XP and Windows Vista included?

While this may seem harmful to Microsoft’s revenue from operating systems, businesses on annual contracts will still pay, and there will still be fees for OEMs to set up Windows on a new PC.

According to Cohen, “Many of Windows 10’s major components are designed modularly, to be replaced with new technology. This iterative design approach should make it possible for Microsoft to innovate and test new features more rapidly than it’s been able to in the past. What’s more, Microsoft’s new operating system will work similarly across desktops, laptops, tablets and phones.”

But what if Microsoft develops a new technology and update scheme that makes the core obsolete? Does Microsoft then release Windows 11? I’m just speculating here, but making everything iterative and based on an existing structure has to eventually limit future development unless Microsoft has developed some miracle update scheme that accounts for this.

And what if Apple considered a similar update method? So OS 10.11 would be the last full release, and all updates would be rolling and incremental from then on. Other than build number, there wouldn’t be a full reference release. Just ongoing bug fixes and feature enhancements. For Apple, it might even make sense since the company doesn’t charge for the OS anyway, even though the annual upgrade cycle means plenty of publicity.

And perhaps a lot of pain, since each major release cycle causes lots of extra work for many developers. Early release bugs appear, and several releases are required to get rid of them, or at least minimize them. New features and APIs are thrust upon developers, and existing apps may have to be updated to be compatible. Indeed, some developers only pay lip service to unique core OS features. Consider Adobe, Microsoft and Quark and ask them when they will ever support OS X’s Auto Save and Versions features. It’s not that they don’t have equivalents of one sort or another, but they are proprietary and restricted to their own apps.

Support for the App Store still isn’t always possible either. You cannot, for example, get Office at the App Store, although I suppose things could change since Microsoft OneNote is offered that way. But not with Adobe, since all apps now require cloud memberships on their network.

Even if Apple did adopt an approach similar to Microsoft, there’d be the same downsides. Ongoing updates would mean regular bouts of pain as developers have to confront a fairly frequent dose of new and changed feature sets. At least with the annual upgrade cycle, they can endure all the pain at once rather than continually. Frequent updates could be wasteful when it comes to developer resources, and some might just opt to take a minimalist approach and only support the features that require the least disruption.

Now Microsoft is confronting a situation where the existing operating system strategy hasn’t worked, so they should be credited with trying something new to see how it fares. While it’s true Apple needs to find a better way to make OS X more stable, it doesn’t necessarily mean Microsoft’s new approach is any better.