Both Microsoft and Apple are moving toward a more mobile-like environment for all of their systems. Windows 8 brings the Metro tile system we first saw in Windows Phone 7, while OS X Mountain Lion draws rather heavily on the iOS experience. There are, as you might expect, a large number of similarities. The big question that we have to ask now is “which company is better at implementing the new concepts?”
Windows 8’s Metro Start screen, despite being a rather polarizing feature, packs a lot of function into a carefully arranged space. It supports tile grouping, easy organization, and Live Tiles. Live Tiles are especially important as they take over the notification functions that we might normally expect as popups from many programs.
OS X Mountain Lion, on the other hand, has added something called Launchpad. Launchpad resembles the interface of an iPad in many ways. All of your apps are lines up on a grid, with a dock to save favorites. The dock is persistent, but Launchpad is not mandatory. While it will be handy for some users, many expect it will largely go unused.
While the Start screen in Windows 8 provides a much better experience than Launchpad, that superiority is somewhat overshadowed by the way it relates to the Desktop. As of the Release Preview that we have to work with, there is a fairly large break between Metro and Desktop interfaces. Some of this may be overcome as new features emerge and interface display options evolve, but for now the impression is sometimes that you’re swapping between coexisting, yet distinct operating systems.
Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion bring touch gestures over to the desktop experience. In both cases we will see pretty much everything that works on a touchscreen transfer nicely to the touchpad of a laptop and, presumably, any touch-enabled mouse that might become popular.
Here, Mountain Lion has the distinct advantage simply because Apple controls their own hardware. iOS users already enjoy a huge number of potential touch gestures and all of these will be brought over. While Windows 8 will be adding a great deal of touch functionality, Microsoft can’t make the interface rely too much on gesture support since the ability to detect many such movements will rely on manufacturer and OEM choices when putting together the device. Microsoft is doing more to innovate and improve their software here, but Apple is able to provide the superior experience.
As I mentioned before, Microsoft is handling the majority of notifications in Windows 8 through the use of Live Tiles. This provides a convenient overview of all recent information in an easily digestible format that allows the user to select what they need to be regularly aware of based on their daily use habits. It’s a simple system that is probably one of the biggest advantages of the Metro Start screen.
OS X Mountain Lion is going in a slightly different direction. Apple has introduced a new notification center this time around. All alerts are handled in one place and the user can choose exactly how they want them to be displayed. It is possible to customize which applications are displayed here, whether they are important enough to merit alert sounds or popups, and so on. You can even shut off all alerts if you’re getting sick of constant popups and dinging noises.
The Metro Live Tile experience stands out here despite the ability to customize in Mountain Lion. That sort of fine control is nice to have available, but it also means that regular upkeep is necessary to make sure that any changes or additions to your system stay covered in a way that makes sense to you. Live Tiles “just work”, to steal a line from Mac fans.
Let’s face it, everything is about “Cloud” capabilities at the moment. Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion make it obvious that their developers are aware of the trend.
Apple’s solution to iCloud integration is to bridge the gap between desktop and tablet. Many of the iOS applications that are now supported will automatically sync through your iCloud account. Documents, notes, photos, and so on will just be available to you whenever you happen to be signed in, regardless of what the compatible device of choice is.
Windows 8 obviously focuses on Microsoft’s SkyDrive. SkyDrive starts off with a bit of an advantage at the outset by offering 7GB of free storage space over iCloud’s 5GB. Office 2013 also defaults to SkyDrive use to make sure that all documents are available when needed. Beyond SkyDrive, however, user accounts sync between computers as well. Once your account is set up for a Windows 8 PC, it stays set up even as you move between systems. This is handy, since Windows 8 will be covering both desktop and tablet sides of the market anyway.
Overall Windows 8 is ahead on this point. The larger storage space is nice. Account syncing is even nicer. Most importantly, though, iCloud will only really work well if you’re on an Apple device. SkyDrive will work anywhere, including on a Mac. The whole point of the Cloud is convenience.
It is simple to call this one immediately. Windows 8’s Share Charm allows for a far better experience than anything in Mountain Lion. Sharing is always going to be in the same place regardless of what app you’re sharing from. It can function using any service that the user wants. There are even more social networks integrated by default at this point.
Apple’s OS X solution was to create a somewhat improves Share Sheets feature that makes it simple to share material from apps that take advantage of it. The lack of user configurability, integrated networks, interface consistency, and general simplicity make it a distant runner up on this point.
While normally this would be an interesting comparison, given that these are both operating systems attempting to integrate some degree of mobile functionality into desktop environments, it isn’t a fair comparison. Windows 8 will be able to take advantage of the already unbelievably huge desktop application market. On the other hand, their initial Metro app selection will be inferior to Apple’s Mac App Store at launch. There’s no way around that. Overall, Microsoft probably has the edge. In terms of the updated OS feature integration, Apple is ahead.
Windows 8 is doing a lot more that is new and probably unusual for many Microsoft customers. It is going to enjoy a far more tumultuous reception as a result. The features are there, though, and the progress is undeniable.
OS X Mountain Lion is probably going to be a lot easier for people to get used to, but it doesn’t really shake things up at all. Apple did a good job of blending iOS features into OS X in a seamless fashion, but that’s about all this is.
In the short term, Mountain Lion will probably win out in most comparisons. Windows 8 is far enough ahead in the ways that matter that it would be surprising if that stayed the case forever, though.