Just a few short years ago, Microsoft found itself as the butt of many jokes passed around the technology scene. The firm had just launched Windows 10 in a bid to recover from the flop that was Windows 8, and the firm boasted a buggy hardware line, an operating system with ancient foundations, and an app store ecosystem frequented by precisely no-one.
The idea, at the time, was to craft the Windows 10 experience around the premise of Universal Apps; applications that could deploy on mobile, tablets, and touch-screen PCs. Microsoft propped up its (then) Nokia acquisition as the vanguard of what would be called Windows 10 Mobile, where Universal Apps could run in synchronicity with the versions consumers would use aboard their tablets and PCs.
The premise was quite simple; a universal Windows that spanned multiple incantations and was omnipresent, user-friendly, and powerful.
Where most brands have an Achilles heel, Microsoft conversely found itself with a weak body and one strong tendon. While Windows itself has retained its market dominance, Microsoft has historically struggled to create unified app ecosystems. While the Microsoft Store has stepped into a new decade comfortably, Apple and Google succeeded in capturing market dominance through their respective app stores.
It didn’t take long for Windows to fall under pressure, and Windows 10 Mobile was subsequently canned. Apple continued to refine iOS, while Google forged ahead with Android. The rest, as they say, is history.
However, after tuning in for the day one keynote of WWDC 2020 – one was left to ask; was Microsoft’s idea just simply before its time?
Looking at the evidence
On stage, Apple’s leadership – from Tim Cook to Craig Federighi – made three key announcements which gives us insight into the future of the Apple ecosystem. Those three changes were 1) the introduction of Widgets and the App Library on iOS 2) A total redesign of macOS for Big Sur, and 3), that future MacBooks would run on Apple silicon.
Those three changes, while disparate, point to an interesting strategy with compelling consequences.
At long last, Android fanboys (myself included) took a long sneer and the idea that Apple has finally integrated widgets and an app drawer of its own fashion to iOS. These additions – while seemingly mundane – offer two important capabilities. The first expands the presence of Home Screen widgets outside of iPadOS, making this a universal experience across Apple’s mobile devices. Secondly, organising the Home Screen under the App Drawer frees up real estate for multi-tasking functions not unlike what we’ve seen on the iPad. For the first time since iPadOS was forked from iOS, we’ve begun to see some level of trickle-down congruence from the former to the latter.
The Mac evolves with Big Sur
The second change, the total redesign of MacOS, introduces an iOS-inspired design that finally alters the OS X aesthetic we’ve become used to for some 15 years. Interestingly, WWDC took pains to highlight the redesign’s focus on maximising space and consistency with iOS (including those new app icons). The presence of features such as Control Center, almost a snapshot of its iOS instance, and the insistence on prioritising design elements for smaller screens may threaten touch support on the Mac in near future – though that’s conjecture.
Apple now has a universal architecutre
Lastly, the announcement of a future switch to Apple silicon now means that three of Apple’s lynchpin product categories now all run on the same architecture. With this in mind, developers can now leverage Project Catalyst to develop cross-device apps that span the length and breadth of Apple products with design and user interface consistency. While the iPhone, iPad, and Mac now each have their own operating system (technically), there has never been a closer congruence between all three devices. At long last, the design, user interface, experience, and architecture of all three products will be within the same domain.
This could lead us to a future where Apple features such as Handoff and Continuity can fluidly span into device settings and states – and where our favourite apps can be built from-the-ground-up for all platforms at once.
If that doesn’t sound somewhat like Microsoft’s idea of a Universal App, I don’t know what does.
The Apple of the future
The key factor that will distinguish Microsoft’s failure from Apple’s success, however, is the strength of the latter’s network. Where Microsoft had to fight to introduce its operating system across three different product lines to new customers, all Apple needs to do is entrench the idea of synchronicity between devices to its users – which it has already done in the past.
With a series of long chess moves, Apple has now positioned its three major product lines (with accessories such as watchOS and AirPods, and Apple TV in tow) onto a single runway, where the advantage of sponsoring universal languages and guidelines across both software and hardware is paramount.
The is the same objective Windows had intended to meet; where Microsoft could push content to new formats, such as its HoloLens glasses or the Xbox. More than ever, it seems as if Apple is ready to combine elements of its different operating systems into potential hybrid products – and that makes a great deal of sense when one considers, that the firm may have to rely on new product successes in the future.
First and foremost, driven by these changes, will be a foldable phone – which has already begun to leak out into the wilderness of the internet. The second is another long-rumoured opportunity that is Smart AR glasses – which, admittedly, no-one seems to have delivered on until now.
Ultimately, preparing a unified architecture and experience may be just as much about preparing the iPhone for the future, as it is preparing us for a post-iPhone future. In the presence of bold new products, Apple will need a strong app ecosystem and App Store revenue model to propel itself – and iOS 14, iPad OS, and macOS Big Sur may be about to deliver it.
It’s a shame Microsoft couldn’t bring its own vision to life.