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Asymco chart showing the growth and decline of PC and mobile OSes since 1975

If the mobile market is a war, the battlefield is shifting.

As VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar recently wrote, it’s no longer a contest between the Apple iOS and Google Android mobile operating systems. Microsoft is about to shake things up in the tablet arena with the introduction of the Windows 8 operating system, which you can download in beta form now. Whether or not Microsoft succeeds, the market is about to change forever.

This new, third factor is a wedge that will dramatically shift the landscape for tablets and smartphones, but in different ways for each.

You can see the stakes of the battle in the graph of computing platform shipments by Horace Dediu of Asymco, shown above. It’s an amazing chart, showing the life and death of computing platforms over the past three and a half decades.

What jumps out at me is how quickly the new, “post-PC” operating systems have taken off. Sales figures for Android, iPhone, and iPad devices have rocketed in just a few years to levels that took Microsoft’s PC platform and the Macintosh decades to reach.

As the PC’s growth has leveled off, Microsoft is trying to position itself to jump aboard the rocket-like trajectories of the newer, mobile operating systems. It’s doing so in a very different way from Apple and Google, however.

Microsoft’s approach to tablet computing is similar to what it’s been touting all along, since the introduction of the ill-fated Tablet PC concept more than a decade ago: Treat keyboard-less tablets or slates as a different kind of personal computer.

Contrast that with Google’s approach, which is to treat tablets as essentially a larger form of smartphone.

Apple’s approach is close to Google’s, with the same operating system on the iPhone and the iPad — but Apple is showing signs of extending that approach even further, to notebooks and desktops, tying together OS X and iOS through its iCloud services over the next few years.

Up to now, with Microsoft more or less waiting in the wings, the battle has been between Apple and Google. They compete on the basis of design, price, flexibility, and openness. Android has been a tremendous success in smartphones, but has so far failed to gain much ground among tablets. Apple has seen tremendous success (and even better margins) in both smartphones and tablets, but may be at risk of losing overall market share thanks to its insistence on closed systems that it controls. It’s precisely that control that makes the iPad and iPhone so beautiful and easy to use, but design and quality only appeal to a subset of consumers.

Once Windows 8 emerges from its beta period and starts shipping as an actual operating system, however, the game will change. The competition will increasingly become one of how much reach these companies can maintain among their developers.

The PC platform wars ended with the dominance of the platform that supported the widest variety of software. The same thing is likely to happen in mobile.

True, there are hundreds of thousands of iOS and Android apps out there already, but if there’s one asset Microsoft has, it is an army of developers and a massive ecosystem of Windows software, both for consumers and on the enterprise side. Having access to that ecosystem will make an enormous difference for many people, because it will allow them to ease into the tablet world with a friendly, Metro-style interface for new apps, without having to give up the ability to run their older Windows software.

The Windows platform will blur the distinction between a tablet and a PC.

On the other side of the equation, Android is already making the distinction between a smartphone and a tablet fuzzy. The Galaxy Note, for instance, is too big to be a decent phone, but too small to be a proper tablet, so writers have resorted to the ugly portmanteau “phablet” to describe it. But really, the nomenclature is beside the point: On Android, the only significant difference between a phone and a tablet is its size.

So how does Microsoft enter this market? By driving a wedge into the one area where both companies have vulnerability: tablets. If Microsoft can capture a chunk of the tablet market by essentially annexing it to the desktop market, it will have a shot at extending the life of the PC as a platform.

In effect, it’s Microsoft’s last, best chance to make the leap from the old world to the new.

The mobile platform war is just one of the five big themes that 180 high-level executives and investors will be discussing at VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit, April 2-3, at the Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito, California.

Last year’s inaugural event proved to be one of the most important gatherings in the industry, and we’re confident that this year’s lineup will be just as significant. If you are in the mobile industry, you’ll want to be there.

I’m looking forward to the event as a chance to learn more about — and debate — the biggest topics in the mobile industry right now. Plus, it’s a sweet location and a much smaller, more intimate venue than most tech conferences. I hope to see you there.

You can request an invitation here.

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