The post-PC future: Where Microsoft and Apple are driving us

With Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion in wide beta, it's time to compare their consumerization strategies, and their effects

In just a few days, we'll see the public beta of Windows 8, the next generation of Microsoft's PC OS that developers and writers like me have had in prebeta form since September. Last week, we saw Apple's forthcoming Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion enter developer beta and have all its finer details pored over at Macworld.com and a few other sites given early access; I've also been working with that developer beta for the last week, though I can't reveal what those Apple-favored websites haven't already revealed.

But I can show how both Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion presage the dramatic change now under way in personal computing, and why that means the PC as we know it is coming to an end in the next few years. What's amazing about Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion is that, despite some radical implementation differences, their fundamental strategic directions share several similarities.

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Apple set this course when it developed iOS as an offshoot of Mac OS X sometime before the iPhone's 2007 debut, and then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs made the OS X/iOS convergence strategy (which I dubbed "MiOS") official 16 months ago. Current CEO Tim Cook reconfirmed this approach last week.

After a lengthy fling with a smartphone strategy aimed at 20-something social networkers (the Kin, then Windows Phone 7) that had no relationship to its PC strategy, Microsoft recently adopted the same basic strategy as Apple; Windows 8 will include a tweaked version of the "legacy" Windows 7 (which needs a better name; maybe "BigWin"?) and the Windows Phone 7-derived Metro, running both operating environments simultaneously on x86-based systems but Metro only on ARM-based systems. It's an open secret that Windows Phone is being reworked as part of the Windows 8 ecosystem, with analysts expecting the first serious Windows Phone competition to iOS and Android in 2013.

The fact that Microsoft, the traditional PC powerhouse, and Apple, the reborn-and-rising power in personal computing, are driving to the same destination means it will happen, for both individuals and businesses. As always, individuals will adopt before businesses do and before IT organizations accept that the change is inevitable and further resistance is futile. However, that's a timing issue, not a split in where they'll end up.

A note on Google: Its Android and Chome strategies share some of the same notions as Apple's and Microsoft's strategies, but Google's vision assumes ultimately that traditional PC apps go away, to be replaced by cloud-hosted HTML5 apps. (Android apps don't appear to have a future as desktop replacements, as they are for iOS.) That's a huge chasm to leap, which is why Apple and Microsoft instead are building bridges from the present to the future. Maybe when Apple and Microsoft have shepherded many of us over that bridge, some will move fully to Google's world. Until then, Google is an alien entity interacting with the Apple and Microsoft fabrics.

Here are the strategies Apple and Microsoft have in common and where they differ in execution.

The endpoint is beside the point
At the core, the strategy takes the view that endpoints aren't the point. Instead, flexible computing fabrics are the goal. Users are the new endpoint, accessing a variety of devices in different circumstances -- sometimes simultaneously. With the user as the new endpoint, information, services, and applications will traverse a fabric of devices via cloud services such as Apple's iCloud and Microsoft's Windows Live, as well as through third-party clouds such as Google Docs, Box.net, and Dropbox.

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