By trying to make tablets part of a continuum that goes from number-crunching workstations and high-end gaming rigs through all-in-one touchscreen media systems and thin-and light notebooks down to slender touch tablets, all with the same OS, Microsoft is aiming for the best of both of today’s computing worlds.
But what will the computing world look like in 2015 when Windows 9 is likely to come along – and what do the underlying trends in Windows 8 tell us about where Microsoft is going?
There are features we’ve predicted for Windows 8 based on Microsoft patents and technologies we’ve seen demonstrated by Microsoft leaders like CTO Craig Mundie that haven’t been announced as part of the OS.
We haven’t seen the final Windows 8 user interface so Kinect-based 3D gestures might still be on the cards this time around, but with Hyper-V only in Windows 8 so developers can run multiple versions of apps the Windows Direct Experience patent doesn’t seem unlikely to make an appearance.
Not everything that makes it into a patent ships as a product feature, but there are improvements in Hyper-V for Windows Server 8 that Microsoft could use to make Windows 9 work better with the special-purpose operating systems for playing music or video that Direct Experience can run on top of Hyper-V, like being able to move a virtual machine from one place to another while it’s running.
CONTRACTS IN PLACE: Metro isn’t just a new interface, it’s a new and simpler way of programming apps – and Microsoft could decide it’s the best option for the future
The obvious question is whether Windows 9 will be 64-bit only – something that Microsoft threatened even before Windows 7 shipped – but that’s going to depend on what chips are in PCs.
ARM is 32-bit now and even when 64-bit ARM chips come along Microsoft may want compatibility with Windows 8 tablets.
And although Intel is talking about 64-bit Atom systems, if netbooks are still popular there will be pressure to support existing 32-bit PCs. It’s going to be about how much compatibility Microsoft will want to offer – and that’s not just about the CPU.
The other Windows device that uses XAML is Windows Phone and making the same application run on Silverlight, on Metro and on Windows Phone is a matter of making a small number of changes to the code to tell it which system it runs on, and making sure the interface is going to fit with the screen size and the way people will interact with it.
Metro apps already have to do some of that for Windows 8, having full-screen, full-size (VGA) and snap-size (XVGA) layouts, as well as portrait views (HTML5 apps use the Media Queries standard in IE10, Silverlight apps use different XAML templates).
Does it make sense for Microsoft to have two different operating systems that support such similar programming models but don’t actually run the same app, especially when they both run on a 1GHz ARM processor?
At the Worldwide Partner Conference this year, Microsoft hinted that it would have a unified OS strategy.
We don’t expect that Windows Phone and Windows 9 would have exactly the same interface, but if the trend of simplifying Windows and making Metro apps more important continues – especially on ARM tablets where you can’t run all those x86 apps you need full Windows compatibility for – then Windows Phone and Windows 9 could be essentially the same operating system, with Metro’sWinRT programming model giving applications ways to integrate features.
JUST AN APP: With no browser chrome around a Web app in Metro IE, it looks like any other Windows app
WinRT is a major cleanup for the way developers program Windows; instead of many different ways to do the same basic thing, there’s just one way – and it’s set up so that an app has only 50ms to get something done before it has to switch to doing it in the background and then waking back up when that task is done.
The ways apps let you search, share and choose files to work with are controlled by ‘contracts’ apps make with the operating system and we expect to see more of these emerge in the future, giving Windows more services that many different apps can work with.
This is such a major change for the way apps work – especially the way the operating system can freeze an app when it’s not visible on screen – and it gives Microsoft so much more control over performance and responsiveness in Windows, that we expect it to be more important in Windows 9.
The Win32 programming model that current Windows apps use isn’t going away, even if x86 apps won’t run on ARM, but we expect it to have even more restrictions in Windows 9.
WinRT also isolates the features developers use far more from the underlying OS and from the Windows kernel. If Microsoft wants to switch to a very different kernel or change out major pieces of the operating system, that’s a lot easier if developers are using the new WinRT interfaces rather than messy old Win32 options.
WinRT could be the secret to making major changes inside Windows and still having compatibility, at least for Metro apps.
FASTER BOOT: Direct Experience would start up a media version of Windows if you booted with a USB stick of music files plugged in
If Windows 9 is the operating system for Windows Phone it would have to include Xbox’s XNA (which is the way you write high-performance games for Windows Phone), but like with Silverlight, making an XNA Xbox game run on Windows doesn’t mean changing a great deal of code.
There’s even an Xbox Live tile that we’ve seen on the Windows 8 Metro Start screen in a couple of Microsoft presentations, which could mean XNA support coming to Windows even sooner.
We don’t see Xbox going away – again, there’s no need to burden it with some of the drawbacks of Windows – but under the covers, Microsoft could be using the same common code that it already shares between Windows client and Windows Server across its other two platforms as well.