|Smartphones Have Led, and Desktops Will Follow|
By JENNA WORTHAM and NICK WINGFIELD
BARCELONA, Spain — These days much of the action in the world of gadgets is happening in smartphones — like their sophisticated design and the apps that run on them. That has left desktop and laptop computers looking a little dull in comparison.
So computers are suddenly getting more phonelike.
Microsoft and Apple are leading the charge in this area. On Wednesday, Microsoft took the wraps off its latest operating system for computers and tablets, Windows 8, which mimics the look and feel of the company’s new software for phones. And Apple recently offered a preview of its next operating system for Macs, incorporating familiar elements from the iPhone and iPad.
“All of the major innovation for PCs is coming from the mobile phone,” said Tim Coulling, an analyst at the research firm Canalys.
The companies hope this strategy will give them added leverage in the market for tablets and smartphones, which is growing to rival the market for personal computers. And it could also help them sell more computers or, in Microsoft’s case, software for computers.
People who buy an iPad or iPhone, for example, might be more inclined to also buy a Mac computer if they work together seamlessly and have features that operate the same way on both devices. For Apple, which still has only a small share of the computer business, that could be a big advantage.
In Microsoft’s case, it needs to defend its traditional dominance of the PC operating system business with software that is versatile enough to also run on tablet computers.
This idea of a “continuum of computing” across various devices has long been “a promise of the future,” said Carolina Milanesi, a research analyst who covers the mobile industry for Gartner. “But now it is critical for success among consumers.”
Apple and Microsoft share an enemy in Google, which has the most popular cellphone operating system in Android but does not have a strong presence in software for computers. Part of Google’s strategy is to make up for that by offering sites and services on the Web that tie in with Android devices. This week the company unveiled a version of its Web browser, Chrome, that lets users synchronize their Web searches between their mobile devices and computers.
In the case of Apple’s next version of its computer operating system, called Mountain Lion, Apple has added several features that were previously mobile-only. It has revamped the Mac’s iChat software to be called Messages and made it work with the iMessage texting software in iPads and iPhones.
Mountain Lion, which is due out this summer, will also include Notification Center, a mobile feature that consolidates the cacophony of incoming e-mail messages, chat messages and online friend requests into a single window pane.
With Windows 8, which became available in a preview version on Wednesday, the inspiration Microsoft is drawing from its Windows Phone software for smartphones is striking. Windows 8 uses the same touch-friendly interface that Microsoft uses in Windows Phone. The interface, known as Metro, features a mosaic of tiles that can be tapped to start up applications, and that often spring to life with photos, e-mails and other new content from the Internet.
Windows 8 is intended to run both on tablet devices operated exclusively through a touchscreen and on more traditional computers controlled mainly by a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft executives have promised that the software works equally well either way.
And Windows 8 users will be able to switch from the Metro interface to a more traditional-looking Windows desktop if they wish. Bill Flora, a former Microsoft designer who was involved in creating Metro, said Microsoft needed to give users both options because it does not want to alienate the vast numbers of people who are used to the traditional Windows appearance.
“It’s such a huge aircraft carrier they are trying to move,” Mr. Flora said. “They want to carry people along rather than make a clean break.”
At Microsoft’s event at a mountaintop hotel here, Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows division, described Windows 8 as a “generational change” in how the company views its suite of products because of the way it creates a “unified OS experience across devices.”
Mr. Sinofsky said it was the company’s hope that the new software would dazzle consumers. “It’s an awesome opportunity for us,” he said.
For Microsoft, which still relies heavily on sales of computer software and has not had a hit phone or tablet, this is not just about design. It may be a matter of survival, and the company’s bold moves indicate how much is at stake, analysts said.
“Microsoft can’t compete with Apple using the old version of Windows, so they had to redesign from the ground up,” said Chetan Sharma, an independent wireless analyst.
Apple has 64 percent of the global market for tablets, and Android claims 32 percent, while Microsoft has less than 2 percent, according to recent data from Canalys. When it comes to smartphones, Microsoft has just 1.5 percent, while Apple has 19 percent and Android claims close to half the market.
“The PC is less relevant, and that means so is Windows,” said Michael Gartenberg, an industry analyst with Gartner. “Microsoft has to think about what that means for their future.”
For both Apple and Microsoft, tying together computers and mobile devices sets them up to charge monthly subscriptions for cloud-based services, like data storage, music or movies, that work across devices. “It’s no longer about one screen but access to the collection of services through a collection of screens,” Mr. Gartenberg said.
Down the road, the additional consumer data collected through these services could open up other business opportunities, like offering more precisely targeted ads or mobile coupons.
“They could tie desktop commerce to mobile and tablet commerce,” Mr. Sharma said. “It offers a better understanding of consumer behavior and when to show an ad on a desktop or a mobile device.”
Mr. Sharma added that a broad reach across mobile devices and computers could give these companies better bargaining power when striking deals with content companies for new services.
Both companies have also borrowed the concept of online app stores from the mobile side to create equivalent services for the computer operating systems. These are centralized online services where users browse, buy and download applications. Apple started its Mac App Store over a year ago; Microsoft opened what it calls the Windows Store on Wednesday.
Nick Wingfield reported from Seattle.