After years of lagging behind Apple in terms of innovating around their user interfaces on both their smartphones and Windows, Microsoft finally took a big step towards competing with Apple head on last year with the introduction of their new Metro UI. Introduced first on Windows Phone 7, this new Touch UI, which uses a tiling metaphor to deliver a more graphical way of dealing with data, is also coming to Windows 8 this fall and in essence, will finally unify the way people interact with Windows based software across smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops in the future. And while touch is critical to smartphone navigation, Windows 8 is also built around a touch UI that, especially on tablets, will be key to navigation and input on all Windows based devices soon.
Of course, this move is basically copying what Apple has been doing for over five years with their iOS strategy in which they use the same OS, UI and touch architecture on iPods, iPhone and iPads. And while direct screen touch is not built into OS X, Apple has gone to great pains to create a touchpad experience that very much emulates these same touch movements on all MacBooks and with an external touch pad for iMacs. And with the recent introduction of OS X Mountain Lion, they now add much of the great features only available on iOS devices to the Mac as well.
What’s interesting about these developments is that in some ways, history is repeating itself. In 1984, Apple brought to market the Mac and introduced the world to graphical user interfaces and the mouse. It took Microsoft a couple of years and some real false starts until they finally got their own GUI right on Windows 95 and continued to ride this new OS and GUI into further PC domination. And during this period Apple had major changes in management and inconsistent strategies that played perfectly into Microsoft’s hands and Microsoft grew exponentially without any real competition.
But when Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997 and began crafting a strategy in which Apple would begin to drive the market beyond the PC and launch the post PC era, Apple soon emerged as the real powerhouse in the world of technology. Starting with the iPod and then with the iPhone, Apple saw their fortunes change from an also ran to the lead horse that is mining most of the industry profit today and is now the most valuable company on the planet. Now Microsoft and other competitors are playing catch up again.
From Microsoft and their partners point of view, they are really hoping that history literally repeats itself. Just as Windows was used to bypass Apple in the past, they are “praying” that Windows 8, with its ability to deliver a similar OS and touch UI experience across multiple devices can revive their fortunes and make them relevant again.
Related Column: Dear Industry History Will Not Repeat Itself
But this is a very tall order this time around. Apple’s lead with iOS and OS X, along with their stellar offering of products that use these operating systems is very large. And while Microsoft’s OS seems to be a solid offering, unlike Apple who owns the hardware, software and services aspect of their eco-system, Microsoft has to hope that their software developers, hardware partners and potential service providers can gel and execute in a way that allows them to actually gain ground on Apple. And, they can’t afford to have any missteps. While Windows on Intel X86 chips seems solid, their move to put Windows on ARM is only in its early stages and its success on this new processor platforms, which includes the need to have software written specifically for these chips, is not assured.
Also keep in mind that, while Microsoft and partners are scrambling to play catch up, they have no idea what else Apple has up their sleeves in the way of new hardware, software enhancements and services. If Apple continues to innovate and stay at least two years ahead of the competition, Microsoft and friends may always be playing catch up for the foreseeable future. And this time around, Microsoft will also have to compete with Google and the Android crowd and Google’s Chrome OS that is destined for the desktop. And with HTML 5 emerging as the future of software development and Web Apps becoming the means of delivering applications, Microsoft this time around has their hands full keeping up with a market that is moving much faster then it did in the past.
But now that the Windows crowd finally has an OS, UI and a strategy that is actually designed to compete with Apple, Microsoft and their partners can now look towards what they hope is a promising future and like in the past, are telling Apple that the game is back on.