Mountain Lion vs. Windows 8: Oh, So Very Different

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Microsoft’s Windows is a shameless imitation of Apple’s Macintosh.

You can debate whether that’s true. You can’t, however, argue that it’s not conventional wisdom: Apple has even joked about it in product launches.

But it may be the conventional wisdom of an era that’s passed. Now that we know what Apple is doing with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, due this summer, we can compare it to Microsoft’s approach with Windows 8, arriving sometime this year. Really, the two companies’ upgrade strategies couldn’t be more different.

(MORE: Apple’s OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion: The Mac Gets Even More iPad-Like)

Between Lion and Mountain Lion, Apple is cramming OS X with ideas borrowed from iOS: the Launchpad, the App Store, full-screen mode, AirPlay, Messages, Notes, Reminders and much more. It’s also making iOS-like gestures, which you perform on Macs’ oversized touch pads, more and more important.

But for all the sweeping iOS influence, Apple is leaving plenty of stuff alone. OS X’s Dock, desktop, menu bar and windows are largely untouched in Mountain Lion. That’s both good and bad: They remain utterly familiar, but you might be sorry that Apple didn’t give them more TLC if the company’s fascination with iOS-ification doesn’t appeal to you.

And then there’s Windows 8. With the touch-centric Metro interface, Microsoft is starting from scratch. It’s built a radically new look and feel and added new features, and expects developers and users to make a great leap forward. Support for old-school Windows is still there, but it’s been shunted off to one side. It’s a necessary acknowledgement that Microsoft couldn’t simply do away with the Windows we’ve known for 26 years overnight.

Why the different approaches?

It’s not hard to figure out. Apple and Microsoft may have competed in the PC market for decades, but they find themselves in very different positions in 2012.

With the iPad, Apple is as well-positioned for a post-PC world — or at least a world in which “PC” means something new — as any company on the planet. It doesn’t need to reinvent OS X. It probably isn’t terrified by the prospect of an era in which Macs are less important than they once were. It can comfortably maintain that Macs are better off without touch screens.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been so busy being PC-centric that it seemed unwilling to contemplate the possibility of a post-PC age until recently. The Tablet PC flopped. Windows Phone, as good as it is, hasn’t yet caught on. If a meaningful percentage of Windows users abandon it for something else, it would be terrible news for Microsoft’s bottom line.

So the company is reinventing Windows as a post-PC product, in a surprisingly aggressive manner. If the PC of the future is a touch-screen device that might not have a physical keyboard, Microsoft wants it to run Windows, and it’s willing to change everything about Windows to make that a reality.

There are no guarantees that it’s going to work — a heck of a lot of people won’t even abandon Windows XP — but it’s a gutsy and imaginative move.

Here’s another bit of conventional wisdom: Apple is bold, and Microsoft is conservative. With their strategy for their aging PC platforms, though, that’s no longer accurate. Apple is giving OS X careful nips and tucks. Microsoft is trying to take Windows 8 places where no traditional operating system has gone before. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it all pans out over the next few years.

MORE: With OS X Lion, Apple’s Macs Enter the iPad Era