It's pretty rare that Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) beats Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) to the punch on anything. But when it comes to attempting to create a single operating system experience across phone, tablet, and PC, it has done exactly that.
With Windows 8, Microsoft redesigned its PC operating system to have the look and feel that people normally associate with tablets. The OS, which runs on both tablets and PCs, also has a companion operating system that brings the same look to Windows phone. In theory this makes it easy for Windows 8 users to switch between devices and eliminates the learning curve in adding a tablet or phone for PC users.
Though the reality has been somewhat different since people have struggled to use Windows 8 across all platforms, the theory is sound. If you use the OS on one type of device you will have a similar experience on others.
Offering a familiar experience could be good for business -- it should allow Microsoft to leverage its large base of PC users into trying tablets and phones. For Apple -- which announced Monday at its Worldwide Developers Conference that it would be taking steps to tie together its phones, tablets, and computers -- having a unified OS experience might work in the opposite direction. The company could lure users from its large pool of iPad and iPhone customers and sell them on Mac computers.
What will Apple be doing?
Apple's just-announced new operating system OS X Yosemite takes the concept of having one experience across multiple devices even further. In addition to making the experience on a Mac look more like the one on iPad and iPhone, Apple also introduced a feature -- dubbed "Handoff" -- that allows users to start a task on one device and continue it on another. The company explained how it works on its website.
Now you can start writing an email on your iPhone and pick up where you left off when you sit down at your Mac. Or browse the web on your Mac and continue from the same link on your iPad. It all happens automatically when your devices are signed in to the same iCloud account. Use Handoff with favorite apps like Mail, Safari, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendar, and Contacts. And developers can build Handoff into their apps now, too.
Handoff also offers another feature that further ties computers into other devices in a unique way.
Sometimes when your iPhone rings, it's not where you are. Maybe it's charging in another room. Or it's buried in your backpack. But your Mac or iPad is sitting right there. Now you can make and receive phone calls on those devices as long as your iPhone running iOS 8 is on the same Wi-Fi network. Incoming calls show the caller's name, number, and profile picture. Just click or swipe the notification to answer, ignore, or respond with a quick message. And making a phone call from your iPad or Mac is just as easy. Simply tap or click a phone number in Contacts, Calendar, or Safari. It all works with your existing iPhone number, so there's nothing to set up.
Microsoft may have been first but Apple has found a way to offer more than just interface similarity. Offering the ability to start something on one device and move to another seamlessly is actually useful. Letting people answer their iPhone from their computer is simple but revolutionary. It's such a basic idea that it seems amazing it did not already exist. The phone answering/calling feature offers true convenience and it's the kind of feature that could lead to a buyer making a different choice.
How big is Apple's audience?
While Apple has a large share of the smartphone and tablet market, it's always been a niche player in PCs. The company shipped over 153 million iPhones in 2013, giving it a 15.3% share of the global mobile phone market, according to IDC. The company has an even larger global share in tablets, with IDC reporting it controls almost 34% of the market in 2013 (roughly 85 million iPads shipped).
During the same year the company sold only 15.7 million Mac computers.
Having a similar operating system along with the Handoff features makes it more enticing for Apple's phone and tablet customers to make the switch to a Mac. While the term ecosystem is always thrown around, there has never been a major reason to not use a Windows-based PC as an iPhone and/or iPad owner. Yes, it means using two different ecosystems, but for most people Windows has no learning curve because they have used it at work or in school. Even iTunes works on a PC so there was no compelling reason to spend more money on a Mac than buying a comparable PC.
Now, with Handoff, you can argue that there is.
Will it work?
The biggest argument against buying Apple products is price. iPhones are at the top of the mobile phone pricing structure even when they are subsidized. iPads are among the most expensive tablets as well. The difference in price between Macs and PCs are even more profound. The cheapest Apple laptop is the entry-level MacBook Air, which costs $899. Mac Mini starts at $599 but users have to add a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. It's easy to buy a very good PC laptop for under $500 and the same can be said for desktops, including ones with touchscreens.
In many cases iPhone and iPad users want to be loyal to Apple but couldn't when faced with dropping nearly $1,000 for a MacBook Air with an 11-inch screen versus much more attractively priced Windows-based computer. There simply wasn't enough benefit to keeping your PC in the iOS ecosystem to justify the expense. The moves Apple is making with OS X Yosemite start to bridge that gap. Handoff and a more universal look may well swing some fence-sitters toward a Mac.
Price will still matter and a large swing is unlikely but add these changes to the recent price cut to the entry-level MacBook Air -- which dropped it from $999 to $899 -- and it should have a clear impact. If Handoff does what it says, it will give people a real reason to keep all their devices in iOS.
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