Microsoft and Apple are ramping up new versions of their respective operating systems for release within months of each other. Although Windows continues to dominate the market for traditional operating systems, the rise of mobility -- driven in large part by Apple's success with the iPad and iPhone -- has threatened to replace the PC as the center of people s everyday computing lives.
That trend has affected Microsoft in a very big way. Windows 8 features a "start" screen of big, colorful tiles linked to applications -- the better to touch, because Microsoft intends the operating system for both traditional PCs and tablets. It will come with an app store, and many of the latest under-the-hood tweaks optimize battery life and wireless connectivity.
Windows 8 tablets will face a variety of competitors, including the iPad and a large array of devices running Google Android. Part of Microsoft's strategy for dealing with that threat rests on its emphasis of Windows 8 as a consummate productivity platform, even on a smaller touch-screen.
In a Building Windows 8 blog post describing Windows on ARM architecture, which powers many of the tablets on the market today (and for which Microsoft applies the acronym WOA ), Windows and Windows Live division president Steven Sinofsky suggested that the new version of Office software would come as an integral part of the overall Windows experience. "Within the Windows desktop, WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, code-named 'Office 15,' " he wrote. "WOA will be a no-compromise product for people who want to have the full benefits of familiar Office productivity software and compatibility."
That's on top of a robust apps ecosystem. For the past few months, Microsoft executives have encouraged third-party developers to create apps for Windows 8. The company will further emphasize the upcoming operating system's mobile bona fides by (almost certainly) unveiling the Consumer Preview (a fancy term for "beta") at this February's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Mountain Lion, Apple's next version of Mac OS X, similarly takes big cues from mobile operating systems -- in its case, by incorporating a number of features that first appeared on iOS. These include iCloud, which syncs user data (including mail, calendars, contacts and documents) between devices via the cloud, and a new Messages feature that allows Mac users to send unlimited messages to iOS devices.
With Apple, this evolution toward mobility feels organic. For some time, it has positioned itself as a "mobile first" company. The current version of its software, Lion, incorporates an app store clearly derived from the one available for iOS.
Windows continues to hold a commanding share of the traditional operating system market, a situation that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The bigger question is whether Windows 8's embrace of the mobile paradigm will allow it to fight toe-to-toe against Apple in the tablet market. That certainly remains to be seen, but based on the new features in Mountain Lion, it also seems that Apple is unwilling to let Microsoft entirely dictate the evolution of the operating system on PCs.