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Revamping an operating system is a very big deal. Not only does it take a lot of work to develop new features and then whittle them down to the final cut, but it can also be an uphill struggle to convince users that a new look or way of doing things is worth the trouble. A new version of an OS is more than just a new look or new functionality, though – it is also an opportunity for the company to make statements about new directions and its brand values.

Every time I look, it seems another operating system has been overhauled. First there was Windows, which acquired a touch interface. Next was iOS, which finally abandoned a clunky skeuomorphism (in which icons mimicked real-world microphones and lined notepads). And most recently came OS X, which has dropped its feline monikers – Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion – and switched to a new nomenclature.

Microsoft’s revamp of Windows had a troubled start. Windows 8 was a big departure for the company. Not only was there a new look, but the OS was pressed uncomfortably into a dual role – it is now for both desktops and tablets.

The new design, which is generally well-liked, had its problems: initially known as “Metro”, in August last year Microsoft announced that the new interface was henceforth to be known as the “Modern” user interface. While commentators speculated that this was because of a copyright issue, Microsoft insisted that “Metro UI” had only ever been an internal code name.

The consequent confusion was then echoed in the bafflement felt by many users when they actually came face to face with Windows 8. In fact, Windows 8 is a good operating system: it is fast to install and boot, gentle on older hardware, comes with anti-malware baked in and generally builds on Windows 7, which is widely praised.

Not that you would know this from the anguish that greeted its debut. Users were nonplussed by the Start screen of brightly coloured tiles and dismayed by the absence of the trusty Start button. Microsoft did not do enough to help users find their way around.

On a functional level, Windows 8 has to work on desktop and tablet, hence the uncomfortable cohabitation of the Modern UI and the familiar desktop metaphor. More importantly, it has a message to convey: that Microsoft is now a “devices and services” business. Posting a year-on-year rise in profits in October, Steve Ballmer, the departing chief executive, stressed that message by saying: “Our devices and services transformation is progressing and we are launching a wide range of compelling products and experiences this fall for both business and consumers.” 

By that he means the Surface tablets, the Xbox One and the Nokia devices that are about to be swallowed up by Microsoft. As well as the unified look, all versions of Windows are moving towards a common codebase – a “holy grail” for developers, says Bryan Biniak of Nokia. It means that apps will work across all Microsoft’s operating systems, both mobile and desktop, removing the problem of fragmentation of the platform.

You can see Apple’s OS relaunches in the same light. Apple is a devices business: of the $35.3bn in revenue it made in the third quarter of this year, nearly 90 per cent was from hardware. Software and services accounted for just under $4bn.

There has been much noise about Apple’s revamp of iOS, which powers iPhones and iPads. As with Windows 8, reactions to the new look were mixed. I like it, but then I always thought the skeuomorphism of iOS was laboured. It marks a break with the past and a clear intent to recapture its reputation as a leader of industrial design.

More problematic, though, is the confused message Apple is sending with the latest iteration of OS X, codenamed Mavericks. I think it is fair to say that it reflects a loss of way at Cupertino, the company’s California base, which has been evident since Steve Jobs died two years ago.

Some new features have been warmly received – such as the new tabs for Finder and better support for multiple monitors, not to mention the fact that it is free – but other elements are puzzling. Parts of it have received the same visual overhaul as iOS – sort of. Calendar has been given the iOS look, while Notes has been stripped of its painful faux-real-notebook look. Yet much of the rest looks much the same as before.

And then there is the name. Apple has been naming iterations of OS X after big cats – Tiger etc – since OS X debuted. Perhaps it is time to move on from that nomenclature, and the decision to switch to California place names makes sense, as Apple is, after all, based in California. But “Mavericks” is a careless choice: as has been pointed out all over the web, it is the name of a notoriously dangerous surfing break that has claimed the lives of two experienced surfers.

To me the choice of that name feels like the rushed decision of someone who has not bothered to do detailed homework, which in turn is not only how the half-finished look of the OS feels, but also more broadly the company’s strategy of late. The release of two versions of the iPhone 5 – the 5c and the 5s– has also confused observers. Is the 5c the cheaper handset analysts have been calling for? It seems not, retailing at only $100 less than the premium 5s.

Apple is still making lots of money and selling lots of devices – but it is losing market share to rivals such as Samsung.

So here’s the thing: users like to feel safe with their choices. Change is not a bad thing, but when making such big changes to something as fundamental as how an operating system looks and feels, it is important not to mishandle that. The really successful brands know they have to delight their customers, and both Microsoft and Apple have failed to pull that off this year.


Appy Christmas: handy ways to share, scan and track Santa

Chirp for iOS (iPhone only) and Android (free)

Exchanging items between devices should be easy: we have WiFi, Bluetooth and Near Field Communication (NFC), yet infuriatingly, these often do not work and you end up emailing the wretched thing to a device inches away. However, if you have installed Chirp on your iPhone or Android device, you can exchange photos, notes you create on the fly in the app, and links. It is very simple: select what you want to send, tap the onscreen button and your device will warble. The other device running the app will “hear” that sound and the item appears there. You can share chirps to social media, and an item can be transmitted to as many devices are in range. It’s brilliant.


Camscanner for WP, iOS, Android (free) or £2.99 for premium app (not for WP)

This is a good idea in theory: you photograph a document on your device, which converts it to a pdf, then the app uploads it to your Camscanner cloud account from where you can add notes, tag and share. You can search your scanned documents, scan multiple documents and password-protect them. In practice, it is clunky as the app has to run through several steps. A free upgrade to the premium advert-free version on Android comes at a cost of spamming all your social media contacts. For an annual fee of $49.99 you can add password-protected document links and a high-quality scan option. I’m not convinced.


Santa trackers, iOS (£1.49) Android (free)

You will use these apps but once a year, but they are lovely. North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Santa Tracker (iOS) updates a tradition started in 1955 when a misplaced digit meant Norad’s telephone number was published in a Sears newspaper advert instead of that for a line for children to call Santa. Norad staff rose to the occasion and tracked Santa’s progress around the globe for young callers, and has done so ever since. The official app is on iOS only. Google’s app (Android) confusingly shows Santa in a different position at the same time. Perhaps it relies on location services on Santa’s phone rather than the missile-tracking technology Norad deploys.


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