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It's official: Apple is converging Macs and iPhones

COMMENTARY Apple (AAPL) has officially confirmed something that I first highlighted almost a year ago (to a fair amount of naysaying): The Mac and iOS operating systems are converging. CEO Tim Cook showed the Wall Street Journal a new version of the Mac OS, named Mountain Lion, which the paper called "the clearest sign yet of Apple's belief that the mobile, laptop and desktop world are destined to converge."

Apple isn't the only tech company moving in that direction. Microsoft (MSFT) has long preached the gospel of convergence, one reason the company has seen mobile as such an important battleground for its operating-system family. But given the lead that the iPhone and iPad have over Windows Phone and over tablets that will eventually run Windows 8 (reportedly delayed until September), Microsoft may never recover from its initial stumbles in mobile computing.

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The new Mac OS will explicitly incorporate features from iOS, including the gaming center, iCloud integration, and messaging. Some existing Mac apps will be renamed (and, presumably, made to work like their iOS cousins), so iCal becomes the calendar and the Address Book becomes Contacts.

But that is almost cosmetic compared to some of the other changes Apple is making. For example, AirPlay Mirroring will let a Mac user see what is on the screen of the person's iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. How long before the other devices all mirror each other, as well?

And Cook left open the possibility that Macs would eventually use the same A-series chips that Apple uses in its other devices, more evidence of the steady push toward a unified platform.

There are some fundamental reasons why both Apple and Microsoft are moving toward converged devices:

  • Get someone used to one user interface and you can transition them to your other devices; conversely, lose users on that converged interface and you might lose them all
  • One code base is a lot easier to support than multiple code bases
  • R&D becomes more efficient as a company concentrates its resources
  • New patents also protect innovation on existing platforms, as a company cross-fertilizes features
  • Get more devices working on the same operating system and processors and you boost purchasing and manufacturing efficiency -- and profitability

Microsoft has tried to provide a converged digital experiences for years. But the company has failed to generate enough excitement (and sales) for Windows Phone. That undercuts the natural advantage Microsoft should have in the PC space, given its market share.

Google (GOOG) also wants to move in this direction, but it has a different strategy. Android runs on many different devices, including TVs, its Chrome web browser on personal computers, and netbook-like Chromebooks. But Google doesn't control a PC operating system, Chromebooks lack mass appeal, and Google TV is a work in progress.

For now, it looks as if competitors will have a hard time beating Apple in the race toward convergence.