One Size Fits

Here’s a rant aimed at Apple and Microsoft.

Mac OSX Lion came out today, and it sports a lot of new features cribbed from IOS, the iPhone/iPad operating system. Steve Jobs has pretty much decided that the days of the PC are waning, and we want a mobile OS everywhere we go. He said that a year ago, and Microsoft was listening. Reports are that Windows 8 will be one operating system (that looks a lot like the boxy new Windows Mobile 7) for all platforms. I imagine that I’ll be running to Linux soon…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of convergence. I like watching TV on my laptop and I appreciate the ability to do email on my phone. I anticipate that, within a year, I’ll be commuting with a tablet (I’m waiting for the Android technology to mature a bit). But what’s wrong with letting the tools go with their strengths?

This is almost the reverse error that Microsoft made with the first Windows mobile, an OS for phones that had a start button, Programs folder and dropdown task list. And zero usability. Microsoft thought the same thing they’re thinking today: one size fits all; our users want standardization, and are willing to sacrifice usability in order to get the same interface on every device. WRONG. Users want tools that are good at getting jobs done. Neutering the PC, or making the phone too obtuse to navigate, in order to standardize the interface is more like servicing your branding needs at your customers expense.

Of course, what concerns me more about these moves are the fundamental differences between the sophisticated computer OSes (Windows 7, Snow Leopard) and the mobile OSes. Mobile OSes are, somewhat justifiably, rigid. You can’t offer the same level of customization on a low-powered, small screen device that you can on a powerful PC or laptop. Apple, of course, has taken this a step further by tightly controlling the flow of content via iTunes. And taking the additional, controversial step of censoring the content available via iTunes and the app store. While most of us (I think) aren’t upset by a vendor-imposed restriction on pornography, Apple has also censored Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonists, adaptations of classic literature, and magazines about competing products. We now have an app store for MacOS and one for Windows under development, and Microsoft has looked, once again, like an Apple-wannabee with their recent product moves.

So are we moving into an era where our major computing tools providers have graduated to content managers and censors? It sure looks that way. There’s a lot of easy money to be made — as Apple’s string of record-breaking profit quarters will attest — in taking the computing out of computing, and turning convergence into simply entertainment-delivery, while user content creation tools and environments get the back seat at the drive-in. I’m not happy with the trend.

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