The term “personal computer” has over the past decade become as vague and ambiguous as device spec sheets at IT retailers. Let’s see, it started off as a device that was always tethered to your home or office; you’d use it to get work done, browse the internet, and play minesweeper among other things of course. The PC then lost its wires, making it portable in its book-shaped form factor, and allowing you to accomplish your computing needs while you’re out and about. It then started shrinking, becoming smaller, thinner, and lighter, so much so that it could fit in our pockets. The image below pretty much sums up just how much technology can change in 10 years.
The evolution of the PC is undoubtedly a remarkable feat, PC’s now come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and form factors. Just look at the Lenovo Yoga 3, Dell’s XPS 12, the Surface Pro 3, and the Asus Padfone S. It’s all covered. Check out the “portable” AIO “tablets” from Asus and Dell and tell me it’s not all covered. So the hardware has evolved
desperately beautifully, but there’s still much that can be done with the software.
Despite the form factors that try to merge the phone and the tablet, and the tablet and the desktop and so on, the software remains relatively fragmented across individual devices. What you could call the ‘interoperability of operating systems’ – coincidentally (I swear) abbreviated ‘IOS’ – has not reached its potential. Devices don’t “talk” to each other as much as they could to make for a seamless computing experience. Although progress is being made in this area, it’s still at a messy, headache-inducing stage.
Today, in the midst of a vicious platform war, you get to choose from three major ecosystems; Apple’s OSX and iOS, Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Phone, and Google’s Chrome OS and Android. As the cloud becomes more prominent, the big 3 ecosystems are respectively becoming ever so integrated, making it harder for one to own a Mac desktop, a Windows tablet, and an Android phone without having to deal with significant incompatibility issues between the three devices.
It’s also more expensive to be invested in 3 separate ecosystems. Unless you use a third-party service, none of your apps, music, or movies will transfer between devices, forcing you to purchase the same content thrice. Not very ideal. It’s hard enough these days to justify the purchase of a single application let alone have to consider which devices that application will be available on, and whether or not you’ll have to buy that very same app 2 more times.
Here at WinBeta, we tend to focus on all things Microsoft, but this piece isn’t about convincing you to switch to any single platform, nor will it attempt to justify which platform is the ultimate best. No, this editorial attempts to look at the current state of the interoperability of operating systems from the 3 major software giants. Which one is leading the pack in this area will be left for you to decide.
Although I must admit, my inner fanboy is screaming at the back of my head with what it thinks is the obvious answer. But as Thomas Nagel suggested; there is no such thing as a ‘view from nowhere’. What’s important is that I’m wary of that inner fanboy, and I’ll try my very best to keep him locked up in a sound-proof cage for the duration of writing this piece. Savvy?
Before we dive into what sets each of the three platforms apart, let’s get the basics out of the way. These are the features that everyone will come to expect from a desktop + mobile ecosystem in 2014. Each of the ecosystems offer a free cloud service that acts as the glue between the devices you own; Apple with iCloud, Google with Drive, and Microsoft with OneDrive. These cloud services will make sure that your contacts, calendar, email, files, photos, music, videos, device settings, and browser histories are always with you and up-to-date. You probably already know all this, and you should, they’re 2014 expectations after all. So the basics are out of the way, let’s move on to what makes each platform special, and unique in terms of the interoperability features that tie the different form factors of devices together.
Starting chronologically with Apple, despite claiming that iOS shares OSX’s base code during the announcement of the first iPhone, the two operating systems are fairly distinct. The company has been putting a lot of emphasis on drastically improving their mobile OS after defining the “Post-PC” era while making only minor changes to its desktop OS. In fact, many of the recent changes to OSX were carried over from iOS. Going back to OSX Lion, the desktop OS saw the App Store, FaceTime, auto-save and auto-resume for app multi-tasking, Launchpad, Messages, Notification Center, Notes, Reminders, Game Center, and a fresh design language all brought over or inspired by the company’s mobile OS.
“…it might be hard for OS X users not to feel neglected — many of the latest new features feel a bit like iOS hand-me-downs.” – Brian Heater, Engadget.
Despite Apple’s push to increase the synchronicity between iOS and OSX, the two operating systems still function as separate entities, and it’s only the aforementioned basics that the platforms share. Apple argues that this may not necessarily be a bad thing considering the different use cases of a phone and desktop PC.
Progress is being made though in the upcoming version of OSX, Yosemite, which is the first major improvement on device interoperability by bringing the phone to the desktop. Customers who own both an iPhone and a Mac will enjoy the added benefit of managing their phone calls and messages directly from the Mac, without having to pull their iPhone’s out of their pocket. That comes in addition to what Apple calls ‘Handoff’, a form of continuity between devices where a user could start writing an email or a document on the phone and continue exactly where they left off on a Mac. The feature works both ways and the best part is that the API is available for developers to integrate into their apps.
It’s these types of features that really add to the experience and practicality of owning multiple devices from a single manufacturer.
I said “Google” and asked friends to blurt out the first thing that pops into their heads, you can probably guess their answers because it’s likely the exact same thing you’re thinking of; “search engine”, “Android”, or “Google”. The last one I found particularly interesting, and upon further inquiry, the response I got was both surprising and obvious. “Google is everything”, because they’ve got their fingers in everything; the phone market, search, robotics, automotive, internet service provision, wearables, you name it. It’s reached a point where you can think of any industry in tech and it wouldn’t sound too weird if you put Google’s name before it. It’s only a matter of time before Google Aerospace sees the light of day.
The problem with an approach like that is that a company loses focus of their core competencies. While their mobile platform is a force to be reckoned with, Chrome OS is a confusing product. It would have made more sense to better optimize Android for larger screens than to offer a completely different OS that is practically useless offline. Unfortunately, unless you are satisfied with a very basic level of cross-device interoperability, there is absolutely no special or unique benefit of owning both a Chrome OS device and an Android phone. Android apps don’t run on Chrome OS – although Google is trying to make that happen – and Chrome extensions/apps don’t carry over to Android.
“At the recent Google I/O conference, the dissonance between the two systems [Chrome OS and Android] was apparent” – Steven Levy, Wired.
Since Android is open source, OEM’s have taken it upon themselves to customize the OS. You’ll find Android installed on not only phones, but hybrid tablets, and even AIO PC’s that would each classify as different form factors. In cases such as those, one would of course benefit from a singular OS on all their devices, but Android is not yet suited for serious PC usage, and it’s certainly no competitor to Windows or OSX.
“Chrome OS is still just bookmarks masquerading as native apps” – David Pierce, The Verge.
Although, to give credit where it’s due, Google’s cloud-based solutions are powerful, particularly Google Now which we’ve recently seen come to Chrome on the desktop. Since many spend at least half of their time on a PC in the browser, there is a lot of potential for Google to exploit. The current card-based notification center shared by Chrome and Android is a good first step, but that only goes so far. The search behemoth has done a good job with wearable thus far though. Android Wear looks great on devices like the Moto 360 and according to reviewers, does go a great length in making you forget that you have a smartphone in your pocket. That right there is what the interoperability of operating systems is all about, making you disregard the form factor of a device for the functions it can perform, whether those functions be watch, phone, tablet, or desktop centric.
If you’re a regular reader of WinBeta, you likely already know a lot about Microsoft, its products, and what the company has been up to lately. If not, here’s the down-low; you’ve got Windows powering the PC, Windows RT as the companion OS for tablets, and Windows Phone for smartphones.
Microsoft has worked hard to make Windows (+RT) and Windows Phone feel like they are extensions of each other. Not only is that true with the shared Modern UI, but also in a collection of smaller ways.
While Apple also has universal apps, they only work across iOS devices. Microsoft’s approach goes a step further, it makes for a significant convenience for customers by allowing them to purchase an app once, and have the ability to install the app on all of their devices; PC, tablet, or phone. Microsoft’s solution also offers continuity with its universal apps, where some apps and games will remember where you last left off, so you can continue watching a movie or continue playing a game exactly where you last left off on one device, and jump right back in on another.
Other ways in which Microsoft adds to the interoperability of devices are smaller, yet make for great practicality when put in use. An example would be how a Windows Phone will automatically offer to share its internet connection with a Windows device when they are in Bluetooth proximity. Or how your Windows and Windows Phone devices will share Wi-Fi passwords among each other. Or even how Windows will automatically match the theme you set on your Windows Phone. All these add up to you getting a sense of sameness when owning devices with Microsoft OS’s installed on them, a sense that you’re not using two or three distinct OS’s, but ones that are one in the same.
To further tie the form factors together, a rebrand effort will soon be underway that will see “Windows” become the sole brand irrespective of the form factor of the device it’s running on. But it’s not just the brand that’s being made cohesive, but the OS itself is gradually being unified.
Starting with Windows 10, all ‘Windows’ based devices will share the same store, bringing devices closer together than they ever were before. Windows 10 users will also enjoy the same features and services across devices like Cortana and Action Center. Whether or not the phone will be integrated to Windows 10 on the PC is yet to be seen, as Microsoft is still in the early stages of its development.
“The promising Universal Apps that Microsoft announced earlier this year will finally have the universal operating system they needed to thrive [in Windows 10].” – Eric Limer, Gizmodo.
The company has also been reportedly testing streaming Xbox games to browsers, while it’s not a native experience, it does bring the Xbox and console gaming into the interoperability fold, something that neither Google nor Apple have.
To conclude, Microsoft is clearly pushing for a more unified, seamless computing experience across devices, and it’s pushing hard. Apple may be out first by bringing simple phone integration to the desktop, and they may even be credited for setting the trend in device interoperability, as they usually are, and Google is well on its way with the wearables, but there’s no denying that Microsoft is set to offer a more complete solution on top of what they already offer today, all due in the latter half of 2015.