Microsoft Windows 8 Unification Plan: Grand, But Risky
Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 appear to look very much alike. That's great news for users, but can Redmond pull off one OS across desktops, mobile and more?
According to Windows Phone 8 leaks, the mobile OS will share code with the Windows 8 client--a clear sign that Microsoft wants a single operating system that can stretch across PCs, tablets, phones, and even entertainment devices. The strategy could give Redmond a big edge over rivals who've split their software into desktop and mobile products. But it also carries some real risks.
New details emerged this week on Windows Phone 8, which (no big surprise here) will be the successor to Windows Phone 7. Video said to be viewed by the site PocketNow showed Windows Phone VP Joe Belfiore touting new features on the platform, which Microsoft is developing under the code name Apollo.
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Components such as the kernel and networking stack, as well as a number of security features, including BitLocker, are taken directly from Windows 8, not Windows CE--on which Windows Phone 7 was built.
Additionally, if the leaked video is authentic--and Microsoft so far hasn't said it isn't--Windows Phone 8 will, like its PC cousin, offer support for C/C++ programming, multi-core processors and multiple screen resolutions, and external hardware like microSD cards. Windows 8 and Windows Phone will also both run Metro apps.
On the video, Belfiore reportedly says that, in writing for Windows Phone 8, developers will be able to "reuse--by far--most of their code" from Windows 8. This news comes after Microsoft has already made clear that Windows 8 will be both a desktop and a tablet OS. The company now seems to be merging phones into the mix as well. "It appears that Windows Phone 8 will leverage important parts of Windows 8 while running the same application base," IDC analyst Al Hilwa tells me.
This grand unification strategy could give Microsoft an edge over Google and Apple. Most significantly, if apps developed for Windows 8 can run across PCs, tablets, and phones with minimal porting issues, then the platform should be a huge magnet for developers anxious to get the most bang for their buck. One issue currently hampering the Windows Phone ecosystem is that it "only" has about 60,000 apps. That sounds like a lot, but it pales in comparison to more than 500,000 apps for the iPhone and, if you can believe Wikipedia (since Google does not release a number,) more than 300,000 apps for Android.
Windows Phone's app count could jump exponentially if Windows 8 creates a common development environment across desktop and mobile products while Apple continues to push Mac OS for PCs and iOS for the iPad and iPhone and Google splits desktop and mobile between Chrome OS and Android.
Now to the risky part. Microsoft’s plan to unite PCs, tablets, and phones under a single OS sounds great in theory, but there are questions as to whether Microsoft can pull it off. If the effort flops, or is beset by delays caused by the many technical issues involved, the company could fall even farther behind its competitors. It's already so far behind that it risks getting lapped. (Arguably, it already has been—Apple will assuredly release iPad 3 before we see the first Windows 8 tablet).
There are already signs that the plan might not go smoothly. Microsoft ideally wants Windows 8 to be hardware agnostic, possibly through the use of abstraction layers and some virtualization and cloud technologies. But already there are questions about Windows' cross-platform potential.
Windows chief Steven Sinofsky has said that Windows 8 tablets that are powered by ARM-based chips won't run legacy Windows apps. And Intel execs have said that Windows 8 devices powered by anything other than their processors won't offer the full Windows experience.
Intel, of course, is biased. But that doesn't make it any less true that the Windows client, to date, has never officially run on anything except Intel processors or x86 and x64 clones. How the Windows client performs on chips, like Qualcomm's Snapdragon, that were built to run operating systems that carry a light footprint--something Windows has never been accused of--is an open question.
"It remains to be seen how hard or easy it will be for developers to modify apps written for one OS for the other," says Hilwa. Such questions become more pointed given Microsoft’s history of significant delays in bringing out new versions of Windows for the x86 platform alone, with which it is well familiar.
Risks aside, Microsoft's apparent plan to unify its operating systems makes a lot of sense in an era in which consumers and workers are jumping from device to device to access personal or business information. Users want that information to be the same, in terms of content and look and feel, regardless of where they get it. Microsoft should be lauded for attempting to give users that experience. Let’s just hope the company can really do it.