What Apple could learn from Windows 10

Microsoft's OS offers advances that rival Apple should consider implementing on its own

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Credit: Apple/Microsoft

Microsoft sought reinvent its flagship operating system with Windows 10 by backing away from some of the extreme user interface changes that characterized Windows 8. Windows 10 introduces the concept of Windows-as-a-service, bridges all manner of devices from PCs to tablets to phones, and introduced a range of new features when it arrived last July.

Despite years of being criticized for copying Apple and for some of the missteps of Windows 8, Microsoft has increasingly shown a real sense of creative design in recent years. I've spent the past few months living with Windows 10 as my primary desktop OS, and there are aspects of it that Apple should learn from and adopt in OS X and iOS.

Cortana on the desktop

Despite the fact that Siri first appeared on the iPhone 4S over four years ago and has been integrated into every iPhone and iPad since (as well as the Apple Watch and fourth-generation Apple TV), Apple's virtual assistant has yet to make it to the desktop. This seems a surprising omission, given that Apple has built speech-recognition capabilities into OS X for dictation and has integrated several virtual/intelligent assistant features into recent OS X releases. These include the ability to pull calendar and location data from email and offer reminders about when to leave for events based on Maps.

Windows 10 brings Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant, to the desktop and positions it front and center in the task bar. Although Cortana can respond to spoken commands or requests, it can also rely on that age-old interface, the keyboard. The mix of input methods provides a natural interface for those used to talking to their devices and those more comfortable typing.

Given that there should be little technical challenge in bringing Siri to the Mac, it's surprising Apple hasn't done so. The advantages are obvious in making a range of tasks easier to do and providing ready access to information without having to rely on apps, the web or Spotlight. It would further unify the user experience across all of Apple's platforms and deliver a broader set of user interactions that would improve the virtual assistant.

Cortana's Notebook

Another aspect of Cortana Apple would do well to emulate on both OS X and iOS is Cortana's Notebook feature.

The Notebook serves as a single place for users to configure the assistant and define key information it uses. It allows you, for instance, to define personal information like preferred name, home and work addresses, and connected accounts like Twitter and Facebook. It also provides a single place to enable or disable features like the hands free "Hey Cortana" function; privacy settings; whether the assistant will actively search for data on a PC as well as the types of data it tracks (events, flights, packages, etc.); how to handle meeting/event reminders; preferred modes of transit; and other settings.

That level of granularity goes beyond Siri and all of the options are packaged in one place. By contrast, settings that affect Siri are spread across various parts of the iOS Settings app or across other built-in iOS apps. Many users may not even know that some aspects of Siri can be changed in the first place or understand some of the decisions Siri makes about a user. Case in point: my iPhone randomly began giving me time estimates for getting to "work" a while back despite the fact that I work from home; it had presumed I work at the local post office because I typically go there every day to check my PO Box.

The Notebook goes beyond just the basics, however. It allows a user to configure Cortana to automatically search for and/or keep track of a range of relevant information including sports scores, news stories, stock prices, local events, movies and even restaurant recommendations. Although Siri (and various apps and Notification Center widgets) can do this, they generally require some user intervention. If I want to check the score for the New York Giants, for example, I need to ask Siri. With Cortana, I can simply specify that I want it to track those scores and it provides them automatically.

Make features obvious during setup

Another aspect of Windows 10 that Apple could learn from on both the desktop and mobile is making new or less-obvious features clearer to a user during setup.

Apple has done a great job streamlining the process of setting up a Mac or iOS device on first use and after a major upgrade. In some ways, it's done too good a job. Think about either the Mac or iOS Setup Assistant. It asks for basic information, requires you to agree to various terms and services, asks for your Apple ID/iCloud account, and asks whether you want to enable a handful of services, including Siri, location services, iCloud for storage and/or syncing Keychain data, for example. That gets you up and running very quickly, but it doesn’t help you configure most preferences for the OS or bundled apps.

For power users, this isn't a big deal since many know about the features in OS X and iOS and where to find settings for them. Less-informed users are left in the dark. This can be particularly challenging with OS X because there are many features that aren't immediately obvious: extensions, Notification Center, Mail's data detection capabilities, the expansive set of items that can be searched with Spotlight, and the various options for Apple's trackpads.

Windows 10 walks the user through a range of settings, including everything from privacy settings to Cortana to preferred accent color. While going through these options can slow the initial setup, it also helps users learn about features that aren't intuitively obvious. That's a great way to orient a new user and it's particularly helpful for those coming from an older version of Windows or another platform.

Given that a fair percentage of people buying Apple products are switching from a different platform - PC to Mac or Android to iOS - this would be a valuable tool for Apple to offer, perhaps with an option to let experienced users skip the process. While Apple doesn't do a great job in this regard for its OSes, many Apple apps do provide a solid introduction when first used or after an upgrade.

Live Tiles

Most people were introduced to the concept of Live Tiles via Windows 8's Start screen and many took an immediate dislike to them. The complaints about the Start screen and its radical departure from other desktop interfaces were legitimate and Microsoft did shoot itself in the foot by forcing the concept on users. Having used them on Windows Phone, I had a more nuanced view. On a phone, they actually work very well as an alternative to the generally static home screen of iOS.

By moving the tiles into the resurrected Start menu in Windows 10, Microsoft managed to retain much of their value - providing easy access to apps, news and weather, social media updates, and other content -- while not disrupting the standard desktop workflow. On the desktop, Live Tiles are similar to the Today view in OS X's Notification Center. The difference is that they're more flexible; items can be pinned and most tiles don't need of a specific widget or extension as is the case with Notification Center.

On Windows Phone, the tiles serve as a dynamic interface that can be arranged as needed and they eliminate the need for multiple home screens; Windows Phone simply presents a scrolling list of tiles. The easy access to apps and immediate access to content actually serves as a middle ground between the iOS list of app icons and home screen widgets on Android.

Although I don't see Apple mimicking this functionality, having an easy-to-manage dynamic list of apps and content similar to them would be a welcome addition to both OS X and iOS. In some ways, OS X's now-defunct Dashboard (replaced by Notification Center) was analogous to this type of flexible functionality. Although Notification Center does offer some similar capabilities, it's much more limited, particularly on iOS.

Expanding Notification Center along these lines and allowing content (and perhaps apps) to be pinned without the need for extensions would be a welcome upgrade.

Continuum and converged computing

Both Apple and Microsoft have visions for converged computing, but they are somewhat different.

Apple calls its vision Continuity and it's focused on tasks and data flowing seamlessly across the company's platforms. The biggest example is Handoff, which allows a task to be started in an app on one device (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch) and completed seamlessly by a matching app on another. Other features allow any device to answer a call from an iPhone and automatic sharing of an iPhone or iPad's LTE connection.

Microsoft's vision, Continuum, allows apps to run on any Windows 10 device and automatically adjust the interface and features to the available hardware. The most notable example of this so far is on the Lumia 950 and 950 XL phones. Connected to a display and traditional input devices like a keyboard and mouse, Windows 10 Mobile takes on a desktop-like interface compete with task bar. Although the full range of Windows 10 features aren't available, major functionality and key apps work much as they would on a PC.

Apple has made it clear it has no plans to converge OS X and iOS in this way anytime soon. But that doesn't mean the company couldn't move in this direction.

iPhones and iPads already support Bluetooth keyboards and can mirror their displays using Apple’s AirPlay. The iPad Pro goes further with its keyboard cover and the Apple Pencil as an advanced input device. It wouldn’t take much to allow an iPhone to act as a primary computing tool on the go, with support for displays outside of AirPlay across iOS devices. Extending newer and larger iPhones' support for landscape orientation to other models when an external display is connected is all that’s needed, perhaps with support for more traditional input devices like Apple's Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad.

If Apple were to go this way, (and the iPad Pro is a step in this direction), it could turn the iPhone (and iPads beyond the iPad Pro) into true mobile computing solutions, which would have major appeal for business and enterprise customers.

Support for touchscreen Macs

This isn't specific to Windows 10, as PC have supported touchscreens for some time, but it's worthy of consideration. When I first started using a Windows 10 notebook, I didn't think much of its touchscreen. Since it isn't a hybrid device that can double as a tablet, I doubted I'd make use of the touchscreen at all. I was wrong. I've found myself tapping the screen at least as much as I do the trackpad (probably more).

There's an argument that interacting with a desktop or laptop using a touchscreen isn't natural, that a more standard input device is the way to go. The problem with that argument is that we live in a touch-centric world. Apple helped usher in this era with the iPhone and iPad, but touch interfaces go well beyond mobile devices - ATMs, self-checkout registers and airport ticketing kiosks are all built around touch interface. Touchscreens are so common that some toddlers get confused when they touch a TV and nothing happens.

Simply put, touch is now a natural way for us to interact with technology and that does extent to desktops and laptops.

There are, of course, tasks that require fine-grained control and apps or OS elements where a mouse or trackpad works better. Even so, I quickly became used to tapping to launch apps, close/minimize windows, move items around, respond to dialogs and alerts, reposition a cursor and scroll (much as I do on an iPad). When I sit down in front of my Mac now, I sometimes find myself automatically reaching towards the screen.

There's no real reason that Apple couldn't introduce this feature in future Macs. Apple could even take the concept further by allowing input using the Apple Pencil, which would deliver finer control that app developers could take advantage of, much as they have on the iPad Pro. One reason Apple may be avoiding this is that it would further blur the lines between the Mac and the iPad. That may be too much for Apple, which remains adamant about not merging its desktop and mobile platforms; this would be a clear step toward a converged device.

So, with these ideas in mind, should Apple outright copy Microsoft? No.

Microsoft has taken bold steps with Windows 10 (some of which go beyond what I've written about here). Some go in directions Apple hasn't yet embraced. Although I don't see Apple flat-out copying these or other aspects of Windows 10, they are points the company should consider because they would expand on capabilities Apple has already embraced successfully.

This story, "What Apple could learn from Windows 10" was originally published by Computerworld.

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