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The Touch OS

touch OS

The line between personal computers and tablets is slowly disappearing. The keyboard and mouse may not be endangered species yet, but their vitality is waning. PC Magazine calls it the Post-PC World, but that might be a little disingenuous. The fact of the matter is that where we’re headed is looking more like a Post-Mobile world. Make no mistake: Tablets will become more like computers, not the other way around. Sure, the new Mac OS X Lion and the announced Windows 8 both seem a lot more like tablet operating systems than desktop operating systems. And aesthetically, they are. But there’s one big difference: right now, a tablet can be used to view and access media. A computer can be used to create it. If anyone has a rapid evolution in its immediate future, it’s the tablet computer.

It’s been a while since my last forward-looking tablet tech post, “The OS Wars.” And a lot has happened. Cloud Computing is still a fringe concept, but companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon have taken great strides to change that. Google’s new, overpriced Chromebooks promise you “Nothing but the web.” It’s a great concept and I’ve been behind it since the beginning. But paying $500 for a computer that can’t do anything but access the internet? Somebody, somewhere, has their head jammed way to far up a dark hole to realize what a bad idea that is. Hopefully the price will come down in time, and we might see cloud computing really start to take off. Apple, meanwhile, has recently announced iCloud, their cloud-based service for syncing data, photos, and music across all your Apple devices. Yes, slowly but surely we are moving away from the world of locally stored data. But the real revolution happening right now isn’t in the cloud. It’s in the Operating System.

Throughout January, February, and March of this year, I argued that tablets couldn’t afford to remain in the realm of expensive toys. Their potential is too great to be squandered by well-to-do business people flipping through an iBook before they fall asleep. The iPad 2, with its video editing and Photoshop capability was a step in the right direction. But, I argued, until tablets are as versatile as computers, they are little more than entertainment devices. Those days are coming to an end.

In two separate announcements, Apple and Microsoft have both made clear where they see the future- and it’s in a computer you can touch, not just point and click at. 

First is Apple’s new Mac OS X Lion. With Lion, Mac has taken a cue from the iPad and integrated simple multitouch gestures into the Mac. Switching between programs with the swipe of a finger, pinch-and-zoom techniques… It’s all here. Watch this cheesy, slightly creepy video extolling the virtues of Max OS X Lion. The OS is really cheap too, just $29. Then again, you have to buy it from the Mac App Store. The Mac App Store is Apple’s latest bid to take a cut of every single piece of software developed for Apple products. By making the new OS exclusive to the App store, they ensure that anyone who is going to update will A) Have and use an Apple ID with a current credit card, and B) Have and use (at least once) the Mac App Store. Their hope, one would suspect, is that all software for the Mac will someday be purchased from the Mac App Store, just as all apps for the iPhone are purchased from their mobile App Store.

The Mac OS X Lion is new and innovative, and it makes the Mac OS just a little bit more like the iPad and iPhone’s iOS. But it’s far from revolutionary.

Microsoft’s plan, on the other hand, is revolutionary. It’s taken a while, but finally, Microsoft has made their move. Many people thought it was suicide that Microsoft stayed out of the tablet race for so long. But I’m starting to think that the move couldn’t have been a smarter one. Android tablets have only slightly diversified a playing field that Apple has single-handedly dominated for a year and a half. The iPad, like its Android-based counterparts, is cool geeky fun, but they’re little more than powerful, impressive, oversized smartphones. While the early tablet wars raged on, Windows, long the champion of the business sector, quietly set to work doing the one thing I’ve been asking for since the beginning:

With their forthcoming, tentatively titled Windows 8, they hope to erase the line between Tablet and PC for good.

Windows 8, which won’t be released until sometime in 2012, was designed with the touch-interface in mind. You can hit a button and switch over to what is essentially Windows 7. And many PC users are likely to do that, especially if they’re running Windows 8 on a computer, not a tablet. But for those with a Windows 8 tablet, they’ll have a whole new interface, strongly influenced by the Windows Phone 7 mobile OS.

New Windows Touch interface

What the What? This, believe it or not, is the new Windows. Users will have the choice of navigating this touch-friendly interface or using a "legacy" view to recreate the look, feel, and file structure of Windows 7/Vista/XP.

And, while it certainly looks mobile-friendly, Windows 8 will be able to run regular computer programs. That’s right. You don’t need to go buy an app that duplicates the functionality of a computer program you already own. You’ll have a tablet that can run all the programs your Windows computer can run.

Peter Pachal of PC Magazine asks the question: Why?

Why would Microsoft go this route, when Apple has clearly shown that a “lite” tablet OS, centered around showcasing media (music, video, and photos), is enough for consumers? The simple answer: for Microsoft, it’s not all about consumers. Business and enterprise have always been a big factor in whatever Windows does, and with tablets it needs to appeal to customers who want to do more “serious” things than watching Netflix and posting tweets.

While Pachal eventually dismisses Microsoft’s plans for Windows 8 as “premature,” he hit the nail on the head in the above statement: With Windows 8, Microsoft hopes to turn tablets and touchscreens into practical, useful tools for businesses, artists, and developers.

Aside from running modern PC programs, the operating system will also run–and encourage the development of–HTML 5 based applications. Those are trimmed down, sleek, efficient web-apps, much like the kind you’ll find in Google’s Chrome App store. Why, you ask? Well, the fact of the matter is, while tablets running Windows 8 will technically be able to run normal Windows-based applications, they might not all be technically able to do so. Most tablets are running ARM processors, far less powerful than the Intel processors you’ll find in a PC or Mac. So while you may be able to run a program like Adobe Photoshop or Autodesk’s Maya on a Windows 8 tablet, the tablet may not actually be fast enough to process it. It’ll be like having a really old Windows computer that can’t handle graphically intensive processes or applications, but it will be brand new and incredibly expensive.

Still, the future isn’t too dim. Microsoft–and to some extent, Apple– are laying the groundwork for a world where tablets can do anything their PC brethren can do. All they need now is the hardware to actually do it. Considering how quickly cell phones and PDA’s went from the world of basic word processing and email to streaming video, HD cameras, and full-on GPS guidance systems, I have high hopes for the future of tablets.

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