Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion – separated at birth?


Alright – shake out the giggles from the title, and let me show you why I said that.

Until recently I had been using Windows 8 every day – and recently switched to a Mac (running 10.8 Mountain Lion) as my primary computing device. The more I have used Mountain Lion – especially with apps in full-screen mode – the more certain things felt subtly similar to Windows 8.

I believe that Mountain Lion is yet another step in Apple’s gradual (some might say slow) rhythm to converge the iOS and OS X platforms, as iOS devices become more capable and OS X becomes more touch friendly, but Apple is doing it in a very cautious way – slowly building a visual and functional perimeter around Mac applications to make them behave much more like iOS applications. I have a thesis around that, which I’ll try to discuss in another post soon. But the main point is that Apple and Microsoft are both shooting for relatively common goals – immersive applications available from an application marketplace that they control for their platforms – with an increasing emphasis on touch – or at least on gestures. I’m not going to say who cloned whom, as many of these are simply examples of multiple discovery, where Apple and Microsoft, largely now chasing common goals, implement similar features in order to achieve them. Let’s take a look at a few similarities.

Pervasive Cloud Storage

From the first time you sign on to Windows 8 or Mountain Lion, the similarities begin. On Windows 8, it tries the hard sell to get you to use a Microsoft Account for your identity – not linking it to a local account as you can do with an Active Directory account, but making your Microsoft Account a local account, and enabling you to synchronize settings (but currently not applications and the Start screen) between two or more computers.

Windows SkyDrive Sync

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t embed iCloud quite as in-your-face, and doesn’t use it to synchronize most settings (or Dock items - unlike its predecessor, MobileMe) but does embed it all over the operating system with several built-in features (such as Safari tab synching across OS X and iOS) Photo Stream, Notes, and Reminders, with applications also able to hook in on their own for storage. Unlike SkyDrive, iCloud (like the file system on iOS) is opaque, and not user navigable – only exposed through applications and operating system features that elect to hook into iCloud. Speaking of hooking into iCloud, some apps like TextEdit ask if you want to save new or existing documents locally or in iCloud (with a dialog that is, honestly, un-Apple-like).

iCloud Sync

Heads-up Application Launcher

Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion provide a “heads-up” approach to launching applications. With Windows 8, this is the Start screen. With OS X, it is Launchpad, first introduced with OS X Lion in 2011. Windows 8′s Start screen (love it or hate it), is a full-screen (usually multi-screen, continuously scrolling) launcher. This launcher can feature notifications and additional information from the applications themselves. Applications can be grouped, and “tiles” can be resized, but not combined into collapsible folders, and are somewhat fussy about placement. Windows does provide interactivity through the Start screen, in the form of Live tiles. See the Weather app below for an example of a Live tile, and Productivity as an example of a group. To my point about fussiness – note the Remote Desktop tile, and the two to its left. Remote Desktop cannot currently be placed underneath CalcTrek in that column – the Start screen always wants columns of a set width (one wide column or two double-width columns), not a single-width column.

Windows Start screen

Since OS X Lion (10.7, almost two years ago), Apple has included Launchpad, which is a feature that presents a (drum-roll, please) full-screen (usually multi-screen, individually paged, as in iOS) application launcher. Unlike the Start screen, Launchpad does not feature any sort of status for applications. They are a static “sea of icons” as Microsoft likes to say about iOS. Instead, notifications now use the Apple Notification Center, which is integrated into the shell. Launchpad application icons don’t ever have notification “badges”, say for reminders or new mail. Instead, notifications are available for applications that are in the OS X Dock or in Notification Center. One or more application icons in Launchpad can be grouped together into a folder, which can be named – just as in iOS. Here is Launchpad:

Launchpad

Intriguingly, OS X Mountain Lion added a much needed feature to Launchpad (which Windows 8 featured from the first day the public saw it), type to search the list of applications. Here is Windows 8 app search, and here is the same feature in OS X.

Application Store

File under “obvious comparison point”. Beginning with OS X Lion in 2011, the Mac App Store offered a limited selection of applications for free download or purchase. In Lion, these were effectively just Mac Apps that were willing to forego 30% of their sales revenue to be in the store (they didn’t have to live within tight constraints). In Mountain Lion, apps were forced to live within the confines of a sandbox, much like applications on iOS – where the damage one app can do to others, the operating system, or user data, is limited. Windows Store applications (WinRT applications) by definition must live within a very strict sandbox – in many ways more strict than the rules required beginning with Mountain Lion.

The Windows Store follows the same design paradigms as other Windows 8 applications. In general, the design of the Windows Store and the App Store on OS X are remarkably similar. A significant difference is that Windows Store applications can be – at the developer’s discretion – provided as trials. No such feature is explicitly available in the App Store, though some developers do achieve a similar goal by providing a free simplified or limited version of the application that is unlocked through an in-app purchase.

Here is the Windows Store:
Windows Store

Here is the App Store on OS X (running windowed, though it can of course run full-screen too):
App Store on OS X

Immersive Applications

Windows Store applications, by definition, are immersive. The full-screen user interface is designed to remove window chrome and let the application itself shine through. Windows Store applications must be either full-screen, snapped, or backgrounded. The next release of Windows is expected to add more window modes for Windows Store applications, but will still not add (back) overlapping windows – in other words, it will still be more like Windows 2.0 than Windows 3.0.

Here is an example of a Windows Store application, the immersive mode of Internet Explorer – which is only capable of being run full-screen or snapped with another app, not in a standalone window:

Modern IE

Here is an example of a full-screen application on OS X Mountain Lion. Note that not all applications can run full-screen. However all applications that can be can also be run windowed. Here is an example of Pages running full-screen on Mountain Lion:

Here is Pages with that same document in a window. The full-screen models of both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 feature hidden menus. The Windows 8 App bar as implemented for Windows Store applications is hidden off the screen to the top or bottom of the application, and can be implemented in wildly varying implementations by developers. The menus for full-screen applications in Mountain Lion are effectively the same Apple Menu-based menu that would normally appear when it was running not in full-screen. The main difference is that the Apple Menu in non Full-screen mode is detached – like Mac applications have always been. In full-screen mode, the menu behaves much more like a Windows application, stuck to the application running full-screen. The menu is hidden until the cursor is hovered over an area a few pixels tall across the top of the screen. Similarly, the Dock is always hidden when applications are running full-screen, until the cursor hovers over a similar bar of space across the bottom of the screen.

What is kind of fascinating to consider here is that Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8 is, in many ways, mirroring the functionality provided by a Lion/Mountain Lion full-screen application. It is one binary, with two modes – Windowed Win32, and full-screen immersive – just as Pages is displaying in the images shown and linked earlier.

Gesture-friendly

In “desktop mode”, both Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion focus more on gestures than previous releases of both. With a touch-screen or trackpad, Windows 8 is very usable (I believe more usable than it is with a mouse), once you have mastered the gestures included. Both have aspects of the shell and many applications that recognize now common gestures such as pull to refresh, pinch to zoom, and rotation with two fingers.

Windows 8 provides a single, single-finger in from the left, gesture to switch applications one at a time, which can be expanded to show a selection of previously run applications to be available, but also includes the desktop. Though I feel Windows 8′s app switching gesture to be limited, it works, and could be expanded in the future to be more powerful. Here you can see Windows 8′s application switcher.

I have used gestures in iOS for the iPad since they first arrived in a preview form that required you to enable them through Xcode. The funny thing about these gestures is, while they aren’t necessary to use on the iPad, they are pretty easy to learn, and can make navigating around the OS much easier. When I started using my rMBP with its built-in trackpad and a Magic Trackpad at my desk, I quickly realized that knowing those gestures immediately translated to OS X. While you don’t need to know them there either, they make getting around much easier. Key gestures are common between iOS on the iPad and on OS X:

  1. 5-finger pinch – iOS: “closes” application and goes to shell application launcher – OS X: Goes to Launchpad
  2. 4 finger-swipe left or right – navigates up or down the application stack of iOS applications/OS X full-screen applications, desktop, & Dashboard (which I disable, as I don’t find it useful).
  3. 4 finger swipe up (or double-press of home button) – on iOS, shows you the list of recent applications from most recent  to least (left to right). Swiping left moves you down the stack. Swiping right moves you up the stack (see 2, above). On OS X, this shows you “Mission Control”, which is effectively the same thing as iOS, just with desktop and full-screen applications included
  4. 3 or 2 finger swipe to the left while on the desktop exposes OS X’s Notification Center.
  5. 2-finger swipe in many OS X applications is used to navigate backwards or forwards, including Safari and the App Store. Regrettably, two-fingered navigation back and forth is not available in the Finder (a weird oversight, but perhaps a sign of the importance Apple feels about the Finder).

Here is OS X’s Mission Control feature, exposing two full-screen applications (iTunes and Pages) and three applications on the desktop (Reminders, Safari, and Mail):

Mission Control

The most fascinating thing here is that, while Windows 8 has been maligned for it’s forced duality of immersive-land and the legacy desktop, the Mac is actually doing the same thing – it just isn’t forcing applications to be full-screen (yet). Legacy applications run on the desktop, and new applications written to the latest APIs run full-screen and support gestures. Quick – was that sentence about Windows 8, or Mountain Lion? It applies equally to both!

I think it’s very interesting to take a step back and see where Apple has very gradually moved forward over the last several instances of OS X, towards a more touch and immersive model, where Microsoft took the plunge with both feet, focusing first on touch, while leaving the Win32 desktop in place – but seemingly as a second-class citizen in priority to WinRT and Windows Store applications.

The next several years will be quite interesting to watch, as I think Apple and Microsoft will wind up at a similar place – just taking very different steps, and very different timeframes, to get there.

  • Eddie

    if Apple and up where windows 8 is right now im moving to linux

  • eddie

    end up i meant