Do Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs Know What They're Doing?


John Gruber makes some good points in this article which defends his position on why Windows 8 is a pretty lousy compromise OS for tablets and desktops. But as I read it and I reflected back on some of the material showing up in the Apple rumor mill, I thought of a different answer to some unasked questions: Just what are Apple and Microsoft doing? What are those two Steve guys up to?

What’s the bigger picture here?

After reflecting a bit on the ribbon interface, it dawned on me that Microsoft could simply dump all of the rest of the user interface (UI) bits into it, for better or worse. Pallets could go away, as could menus. That combination would allow for much more touch-friendly apps. I didn’t realize as I was complaining yesterday about the size of various graphical elements that in making them bigger, they are certainly making them more finger-friendly. Not that it looks good on a big 24” monitor, not that it makes for a particularly good desktop experience, and it’ll take a long time for all developers to move their apps from traditional menu-based interactions to ribbon-based interactions (especially if there’s no incentive to do so), but it certainly seems like a way to make a combo desktop/tablet UI work reasonably well.

(I still think, however, that by putting the ribbon across the top of the window that it’s in the wrong place, that it belongs down the side of the display. This would work better for everybody, especially tablets where screen real estate is at a premium. Apple’s split view controller—you know it from the mail application on the iPad—is the model that should be followed here, desktop, laptop or tablet.)

The problem of course, as John correctly (I think) notes, is that the underlying OS doesn’t make a distinction between tablet and desktop meaning that the tablet experience is likely to be very clunky at times. But though that may be true in Windows 8, I’m not so sure that it will be quite as true in Windows 9 (or whatever comes next). I’m also pretty sure that most Windows users just won’t care, or won’t be able to see that it’s a problem. Those who do care simply won’t buy Windows 8 in the first place.

So I’ll bet a virtual Dogfish Head World Wide Stout that the big picture at Microsoft is convergence of it all, both the underlying OS and the UI. (I may be stating the obvious, but somebody’s got to do it.) From a software company’s perspective, it only makes sense. One UI, one OS to develop and maintain, yet sell to all platform makers of all form factors. And developers will be happier as a result, too, for the same reason.

The Microsoft ecosystem is, from my observations, happiest with a “write once, deploy many” approach, and Windows 8 demonstrates (to me, at least) that this de-fragmenting of the Windows market is good for that ecosystem. If this is Steve Ballmer’s brainchild, directly or indirectly, then, yes, he seems to know what he’s doing.

Now, is Apple doing something similar? My answer is “Yes and no.” “Yes” in that it’s already obvious to the most casual observer that they are because everybody knows, for example, that the underlying OS of all Apple devices (save the non-touch iPods) is OS X. From a hardware company’s perspective, that approach makes sense: spend less on the underlying software required to get your devices to run.

Well, then, how about the UI? Here the answer is “No.” While there may be elements of iOS that show up in Mac OS and vice-versa, Apple has already demonstrated a willingness to make completely different-appearing versions of apps for three distinct platforms, e.g., iWork for the iPod Touch/iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Apple makes its developers do the same, though the tools are getting better and better and may eventually make it easier to do so with less effort.

Though the underlying code may work the same (rendering engines, file handling, etc.), the part the user sees is totally different. And remembering that Apple is both a software and a hardware company, from Apple-the-software-company’s perspective, that approach makes sense, too: spend less on the core stuff, and make the products different enough to justify selling them separately.

It’s clear that this particular Steve’s approach is not “Developers! Developers! Developers!” Instead, the Apple ecosystem is more symbiotic. Apple needs the hardware to look its best in order to sell, which requires developers to create apps which work well for the different hardware platforms. By specializing the apps for the platform, the net result is (hopefully) sales for Apple and the developers because they work well together. Though the Apple—the software/hardware company—approach is totally different from the approach of software-only Microsoft, this Steve Jobs guy seems to know what he’s doing, too.

So while I may agree with what Gruber says about the interface of Windows 8, that at the moment it’s a clunky mishmash of old and new, I am going to guess that this is a stepping stone. I think Windows 8 shows that Microsoft is essentially headed in the right direction for the future of their Windows product—and for the company’s bottom line. Furthermore, I think that Apple is also headed in the right direction for the future of Apple products—and for the company’s bottom line.

Thankfully, Microsoft and Apple are doing things differently enough to keep things interesting for the rest of us.

Recent Comments