Upgrades: Are Computers Just Big Smartphones?

The beta versions of Mac OS X (code-named Mountain Lion) and Windows 8 are now being tested worldwide, and although they are quite different from one another, they share one characteristic: Both take designs and features built for smartphones and tablets and tack them onto desktops and laptops. Does that mean that Apple and Microsoft believe that your computer is really just a big smartphone? And what do these new upgrades mean for IT?

Microsoft has gone much further than Apple in making its operating system look and work like a smartphone. The Windows 8 tiled interface is taken straight from Windows Phone 7 and is clearly designed for touchscreens rather than mice and keyboards. The familiar Windows desktop is downplayed -- you don't even boot directly into it -- and little effort has been put into changing it.

What you boot into is the tiled interface known as Metro , which represents one of the more dramatic makeovers of the operating system. Metro was originally designed for phones, and at this point, it seems like it will be much more at home on tablets than on desktops. But its presence in Windows 8 suggests that Microsoft is intent on unifying the Windows interface across all platforms. What we're seeing, then, is a complete reversal of the early days of Windows Mobile, when Microsoft designed a phone interface to look like the desktop version of Windows.

Apple's changes in the just-released beta of Mac OS X aren't as dramatic, but they, too, are aimed at making desktops and laptops look and work more like smartphones and tablets. Several apps originally developed for iOS have been ported over to Mac OS X. But the bigger news is that Mountain Lion fully integrates with iCloud so that data and settings can now sync across all Apple devices, including iPads and iPhones .

Based on initial reports, Apple appears to have done a better job than Microsoft of picking and choosing mobility-related features that it can roll into its operating system while keeping the operating system clearly aimed at desktops and laptops. The main elements of Mac OS X haven't changed so much as undergone a variety of tweaks and additions, notably iOS integration. Windows 8, on the other hand, doesn't look like a desktop or laptop operating system and hasn't been optimized to work on one.

Impact on IT

The Mac OS X upgrade won't have much of an effect on IT shops. Although Apple hardware is becoming increasingly popular in enterprises, it's still not the standard in most places, and therefore many IT shops simply won't have to deal with it. In companies that do have a significant number of iPads and Mac laptops and desktops in use, the redesign will have a slightly beneficial impact because of its integration with iCloud.

The Windows 8 overhaul represents a classic "good news and bad news" situation for IT. The bad news is that Metro will present serious headaches for IT because of support issues and because new Metro apps may not play well with existing enterprise software. The good news is that the Windows 8 kernel will be used for Windows 8 tablets, so enterprises will be able to deploy and manage tablets more easily than they can now. Eventually, the Windows 8 kernel will be used on smartphones as well. So Windows 8 will ultimately make it easier for IT to deploy desktop, laptop and mobile hardware with a single tool.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Read more about operating systems in Computerworld's Operating Systems Topic Center.

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Preston Gralla

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