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Windows 10 vs. El Capitan: The state of the OS, and what it means to the enterprise, developers

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Tayven James, Author, Independent

A rivalry that has spanned for decades began a new chapter recently as Microsoft and Apple each released updates to their respective operating systems. Windows 10 and OS X El Capitan offer interesting improvements to several key features of both the UX and UI. I can say with confidence that both are worth the upgrade.

Windows 10 and OS X El Capitan are making compelling cases for adoption, both in the enterprise and for app developers. Has Apple done enough to steal market share from Windows? Or can Microsoft's OS extend its dominance beyond the desktop?

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Windows 10: A smooth, secure transition

Since its public release on July 29, Windows 10 has quickly become the most adopted computer OS in history. It has already found its way onto more than 110 million PCs, quickly overtaking all-time installations of Windows 8.1. If you're on a PC right now, there's a good chance that you're running Windows 10.

Microsoft has made the updating process incredibly simple, leveraging an in-place upgrade to ensure that data, settings, applications, and drivers are preserved. It also takes advantage of dynamic provisioning, making it possible to change editions of Windows with a single reboot and clearing the way for more secure and successful choose your own device (CYOD) policy adoption.

Windows 10 offers impressive new features in terms of security, including Windows Hello, which works with compatible fingerprint readers, facial recognition software, and even retina scanners to maximize device protection. It also boasts two new enterprise features: Device Guard and Credential Guard leverage virtualization to protect the core kernel from malware and defend devices against the threat of remote attack. These impressive security upgrades should keep Windows firmly entrenched as the go-to OS for enterprises looking to keep their data and devices locked down.

More updates are still forthcoming, as Microsoft will be pushing out rolling updates for Windows 10 over the coming weeks and months. You'll also want to take some time to make sure all of your favorite programs and connected devices, such as printers and Wi-Fi routers, have updated drivers available. If you don't, you may be left high and dry.

The best of both worlds?

After several up and down releases (including the much maligned Windows Vista, the beloved Windows 7, and the progressive but confusing Windows 8) the consensus among most experts is that Windows 10 combines the best features of both Windows 7 and Windows 8. While I can't disagree completely—after all, there are plenty of features from both operating systems on display in the new OS—I'm hard-pressed to call Windows 10 an elegant pairing of the two. Instead, the new interface seems a bit half-cocked. It makes a valiant attempt to combine the familiar, classic desktop and start menu that harken back to Windows 7 with the more progressive, tiled setup featured in Windows 8, but it doesn't fully do justice to either.

It's hard to criticize Microsoft for catering to a demographic that's both aging and deeply entrenched in the traditional Windows UX, but I was a big fan of the paradigm shift introduced by Windows 8. I appreciated the touch-first design and the move to using search as a replacement for the traditional file explorer. Either way, Windows 10 is the operating system that should please all crowds.

Goodbye Internet Explorer, hello Edge

One key upgrade presented in Windows 10 is a fresh new browser that replaces longtime staple Internet Explorer (IE). The browser, Microsoft Edge, ditches the legacy support that's hampered IE for years and introduces several nifty new features like Cortana integration, on-page markup called "Web notes," and reading view. Most importantly, Edge has an impressively lean code base, making it dramatically faster than IE and even allowing it to outperform both Chrome and Firefox in speed tests. This is great news for web developers, particularly because widespread adoption of the new browser should also eliminate the need to include special IE-only provisions for online assets. Microsoft was even sneaky enough to give Edge a logo nearly identical to that of IE, so many users may not even realize they're on a new browser.

The improvements don't stop there. Windows 10 brings Cortana to the forefront, offering support from the voice assistant right from the desktop. In essence, Cortana provides the same information you could previously garner using the search function on Windows 8, with some improvements, including the ability to speak your questions instead of typing. This means an easy path to locating documents, getting weather updates, or finding answers to life's great questions.

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The power to achieve more

Perhaps the most important component of Windows 10 isn't a single feature, but the fact that Microsoft's new OS will singularly power the full spectrum of Windows devices. The desktop PC, the Surface tablet, the Windows phone, the Xbox, and even the new HoloLens will all be running Windows 10, meaning that a single app can be used on any and every device. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella summed this up at the recent Windows 10 launch event: "The fact that we've unified the development platform means developers can write applications that can target the widest set of Windows devices." It looks like Microsoft is going to do whatever they can to facilitate that.

For example, now that Windows 10 is powering both the PC and the Xbox, you'll be able to play games on your PC wirelessly using your Xbox controller. Microsoft also released the Surface Book to fill what it perceived as a gap in the marketplace for a powerful portable laptop that will deliver the right apps to power users on the go. And Nadella promises to "absolutely" provide additional hardware if it sees a need in the future.

One major roadblock for Microsoft, though, is the stiff competition it faces from both iOS and Android in the smartphone and tablet markets. While Windows PCs and the Xbox have been widely adopted, the vast majority of their owners are turning to iPhones, iPads, and Android devices for their mobile and tablet needs. This means that developers building for Windows 10 will still need to build for other platforms if they intend to make sales for mobile applications. Microsoft appears to have an answer in the form of the new Windows Continuum. In essence, Continuum takes advantage of the shared Windows 10 experience and turns your Windows phone into a mini CPU able to connect to a full-size monitor and interact with a mouse and keyboard. It's a feature similar to what the Neptune Hub is trying to accomplish in the wearable space, but Continuum leverages the strength of a full Windows 10 experience, rather than a mobile-first OS. It's an impressive feature and a possible game-changer for Windows users on the go. Combined with OneDrive, Continuum provides access to any document, any program, anytime, anywhere.

OS X El Capitan: A minor update with one or two major changes

At this time last year, Apple's OS X Yosemite update brought new features such as Handoff and Continuity to Mac devices everywhere. These features made it easy to switch from an iPhone or iPad to a MacBook or iMac, and vice versa. With Windows 10 making huge strides into a completely unified and seamless cross-device experience, would this year's El Capitan update offer similar benefits? In short, the answer is no. But El Capitan does bring a few notable additions and improvements, plus a few conspicuous omissions.

Among the nice-to-have updates in El Capitan, Apple introduced several upgrades for Safari and Notes, support for split screens, and notable improvements to search. Safari in particular offers improved performance, along with the ability to pin your favorite tabs and even mute unexpected noise coming from a new tab. Split View allows you to quickly and easily assign two programs equal parts of a full-screen window, similar to the Snap feature found in Windows. And Notes has become more useful than ever, offering the ability to add photos or video to your notes and even create checklists. Unfortunately, it's not quite robust enough to be a viable alternative to Google Docs or Evernote, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Spotlight, meanwhile, has received probably the most impressive upgrades of the bunch. In addition to giving a quick look at a range of programs, documents, and emails on your computer, Spotlight can now provide answers to specific questions (like what's the weather going to be like this weekend?) and provide information from Maps (like addresses for local businesses). It even offers the ability to search contextually, responding to searches like, "Documents about Ebola from last summer." These new features may not surpass what's offered in Windows 10, but they'll certainly be welcome additions for Mac users.

No root, no problem

One major change that developers in particular will note is that El Capitan no longer provides access to the system root. While this probably won't affect the majority of developers (and even fewer end users), there will be several legacy programs that will suddenly find themselves locked out and rendered useless. It's worth double-checking to make sure some of your older enterprise programs aren't going to fall victim to this change. On the bright side, the new System Integration Protection responsible for locking out access to the root should further tighten security in the already well-protected Mac environment.

On the flip side, El Capitan introduces developer access for Metal, Apple's core graphics technology, providing tight access to the GPU on Mac devices. Until now, Metal has only been available to developers on iOS devices. This is one change the should deliver a significant upgrade in app performance.

Just one question...Where's Siri?

One curious omission from El Capitan is Apple's own digital assistant. Siri has been a staple of the iPhone and iPad for years, but Apple has recently announced that its voice assistant will play a key role in the newest version of Apple TV, helping power search on the device in much the same way Cortana does in Windows 10. The exclusion also sends a curious message to developers, who now have API access to Siri in iOS and Apple TV, but none whatsoever in OS X. It's possible that Apple feels strongly that the future of voice doesn't have a place on the desktop, but I'm still intrigued by the omission.

With Microsoft making some fairly noteworthy strides with Windows 10 (strides that could pay major dividends in both the mobile and tablet arenas), Apple's decision to make only incremental improvements to OS X with El Capitan strikes me as a bit baffling. For those deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, El Capitan offers just enough to convince them to stick around, hoping for greater improvements in the future. But for developers and users on the fence, Windows 10 offers by far the more compelling case for adoption.

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