The Microsoft Does it Again Report

September 16th, 2011

Years ago, Microsoft would respond to serious competition by assuring everyone that they were working on an even better product. You’d even see it some day, but maybe they could interest you in the stuff they were working on now. This comes across as a classic bait and switch scheme, particularly when those promised products would seldom arrive in the promised condition, and sometimes would never arrive at all.

Microsoft is very much the opposite of Apple in this respect. When there’s a new product or service under development that they think they can sell, Microsoft will shout it to the rooftops. The media will get early and ongoing previews until it finally ships. This can be a blessing or curse, depending on whether they can fulfill all their promises.

Apple is notorious for saying little or nothing about future products. Sometimes they will even put down a product category in a very blunt fashion, only to enter that market later on. So we had Steve Jobs poo-poohing the idea of Apple making a mobile handset some years before the iPhone debuted. Well, their excuse would be that they looked at the market, saturated with handsets and smartphones, and had to devise a way to make a difference and make a profit. If they couldn’t, there would have been no iPhone.

And don’t forget that the Mac mini came out only months after Apple announced, at one of their quarterly conferences with financial analysts, that they would never build a low-cost Mac, and that cheap PCs were junk. At the point, the Mac mini was already in the final stages of preproduction, so they knew full well when it would arrive and where it would stand among cheap personal computers.

More often than not, however, Apple tells you nothing. Advance previews seldom occur, and when they do, it’s to give developers a chance to make their products compatible. So you’ll always hear about the next version of Mac OS X or the iOS. Besides, once developers get their hands on preview releases, you’ll know about it anyway. Too many developers talk to too many members of the media to stop the practice and, besides, it does generate plenty of hype and anticipation, even though Apple doesn’t say much beyond posting some preview information on their site.

With Lion, Apple began to meld certain visual features of the iOS in Lion. This sort of thing is to be expected, and it will surely help users of iPhones and iPads migrate to the Mac and find the surroundings easier to grok. Indeed, Mac sales continue to soar past the flagging PC market, so Apple has a good strategy here.

At the same time, although based on the same core, Mac OS X and the iOS are very different, since they cater to very different markets. On a Mac, you are getting an OS that still adheres to the traditions of graphical operating systems pioneered by Apple in 1984. You have menu bars, you can point and click with your mouse and trackpad, manage a hierarchical file system, and run multiple apps and documents on multiple displays. In observance to those who are becoming very accustomed to touchscreens, there is support for gestures. But merging the two operating systems wouldn’t make sense, since Apple’s Macs and mobile gear are not meant to work the same, and have very different hardware capabilities.

Microsoft, of course, wants desperately to trump Apple. So what do they do? Well, they have decided to essentially develop a unified version of Windows that will, or should, work essentially the same on a tablet as on a standard personal computer (be it a note-book or desktop). Both will sport a theme inspired by Windows Phone 7 , called Metro, which uses tiles instead of icons in the Start menu to display links to apps, status displays, or just general messages about the services you’re using, such as email, Face-book and Twitter.

Dubbed Windows 8, in theory this OS will work well on the standard Intel and AMD processors, plus the ARM processors installed inside hundreds of millions of mobile gadgets, including the iPhone and iPad. There will also be a new class of Web-based apps that are supposed to adhere to current standards, such as HTML5, and run on all supported platforms. How traditional apps will fare is murkier, though I suppose Microsoft’s developer tools would be updated to allow you to compile an app for either or both processor families. That’s similar to Apple’s original Universal app scheme, designed to support the PowerPC and Intel.

Of course, Apple knows how to develop apps to function on different processors, along with emulators to serve as a crutch for customers and developers until most software is updated for the new chips. But this is new territory for Microsoft, having used AMD and Intel hardware for years. Also, it’s not at all certain how well a full-bore Windows 8 will run on ARM, or how easy it will be to get regular Windows software to function efficiently.

This week’s demonstrations involved giving reporters tablets that used regular Intel-based parts. ARM-based hardware wasn’t distributed, although Microsoft boasts that Windows 8 will work just fine. But it’s also true that the developer preview has huge processor demands, causing the demonstration tablets to run hot. They were also equipped with hefty batteries because of the system’s huge power requirements.

So is Windows 8 just another Microsoft vaporware scheme to deflect interest from Apple? When 2012 arrives, will Microsoft’s promises of an all-in-one OS be fulfilled in the real world? Perhaps, in one form or another, but I expect some of the claims being made now will be shown to be, shall we say, a little shaky.

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12 Responses to “The Microsoft Does it Again Report”

  1. Colstan says:

    Inevitably, some tech pundits will say that Apple will have to meld iOS and Mac OS X together, just like Microsoft is doing with Windows 8. The iOS and Mac OS X already use the same kernel, so they’ll eventually use the same interface, right? Or if not now, then it will happen “some day” in a nebulous, unspecified form because they are “headed that way” and it’s “obvious”. I still haven’t figured out this circular reasoning. Evidently Microsoft sees the logic in it and they claim they will prove it in a year.

    I don’t think that Windows 8 is complete vaporware. I’ve used it in Boot Camp. That doesn’t mean that the Metro interface is suitable for a typical desktop or notebook. I think that the executives at Microsoft honestly think that you can combine two completely different interfaces into one OS and expect it to succeed. It’s going to be interesting to see if Apple’s specialized, device-specific approach continues to succeed or if Microsoft’s one size fits all design wins.


    • @Colstan, Oh we know there’s a public beta. But the final product may differ quite a bit from what you’ve seen, other than that tacky interface I gather.


      • Colstan says:

        @Gene Steinberg, I didn’t mean to suggest that you weren’t aware of the public beta. What I meant is that it’s not just smoke and mirrors on Microsoft’s part in order to distract attention from Apple (although that may be a useful side-effect for them). Microsoft is pushing Metro big time and it’s the main highlight of Windows 8. It’s going to redefine the entire user experience. I’m skeptical that they will be able to succeed by trying to please everyone by having two distinctly different UIs.


  2. Jbelkin says:

    A unified OS sounds great in theory just like it would be great if a car manufacturer came up with one engine that could go intoan economic box toa sports car but in reality? Ms has proven win is a poor tablet OS and so far 8 has not proven very different – a fan? Really? Ms is always over promising in one sense and delivering in the other sense – as if running bloatware ms office is ome great goal … Sure, it’ll run ms office but it also needs a fan and crashes your tablet – that is ms. It’s a checklist OS designed to sell to govt agencies and enterprise – USEABILITY is not on the checklist. It’s a solid engineered bridge to no where.

    The other prob is ms after 15 years of wonky and insecure oses has brandeditself as the cheapest technology choice of last resort … Thtis why they cannot sell any phones nor tablets … NO ONE will buy a ms tablet above 199 unless it’s a govt agency … So a win tablet will do fine as they have no expectationsb – it will sell the same as it does now -about 2 million units while apple will sell 40 million iPads.

  3. James says:

    Microsoft has a lot of experience porting their Windows NT kernel to multiple platforms. They’ve had versions in the past that have run on PPC, Itanium and Dec’s Alpha. None of this is particularly recent but there is no reason to believe that the NT kernel got any less portable in the last few years.

    Using the ARM architecture for Windows 8 is not a technical problem in all likelihood. Performance and features are a whole different matter though.

    • Colstan says:

      @James, I believe the NT kernel was also ported to MIPS, as well as PowerPC, Alpha and Itanium, as you stated. Intergraph ported NT to its Clipper architecture but was never released, and a SPARC version was planned, I believe. Lack of demand for these alternative architectures due to the loss of x86 compatibility eventually resulted in Microsoft canceling these versions. DEC attempted to remedy this with the FX!32 emulation software that could translate x86 to Alpha-native code, but it wasn’t successful enough to succeed.

      This is another obstacle that Microsoft faces with Windows 8. ARM versions won’t be able to use legacy x86 applications (which is everything currently available), so if someone wishes to run an x86-only application on their ARM-based device, then they will be disappointed. One of Intel’s greatest strengths has always been compatibility with existing code. This has also been true for Windows, in that Microsoft has gone to great effort to ensure that very old applications work properly on new versions of Windows. This won’t be the case with the new ARM hardware, and is the likely reason that Microsoft is going to restrict the types of devices that will use it.

      It is conceivable that the most popular low-power devices based upon Windows 8 will in fact use Intel and AMD CPUs, even if they have a higher power draw. Users will be able to run old applications on them, even if it costs battery life. Microsoft may have outwitted itself again, eventually having to reconsider how they go about supporting ARM. This is, of course, assuming anyone buys Windows 8 mobile devices to begin with.


  4. Kaleberg says:

    For Mac people, I’ll say: Metro sounds like Front Row for Windows, a simplified, focused front end for the real underlying operating system.

    For Windows people, I’ll make that: Metro sounds like Norton for Windows, a simplified, focused front end for the real underlying operating system.

    Does anyone else remember the 80s when people would “norton” you a copy of the file on a floppy disk?

    • Peter says:

      @Kaleberg, Actually, I’m thinking it sounds more like Dashboard for Windows.

      Imagine a Mac tablet that booted to Dashboard. There are lots of cool little widgets for Dashboard. You could probably get through most of your portable day with these widgets and a web browser.

      Now, imagine you could also run Adobe Photoshop or InDesign or Word or (ha ha) AutoCAD with it. Yeah, you might want to plug it in while you’re doing it, but you don’t need to schlep around a laptop anymore for those times that you need to run a “real” app.

      Intriguing concept…

  5. ViewRoyal says:

    Windows 8 tablets with Intel or AMD processors will be able to run Windows applications… but those tablets, like the Samsung 700T that Microsoft used to showcase Windows 8, will be thick, heavy, run hot, require fans & vents, and will have very short battery life. (See the PC ADVISOR review of the Samsung 700T)

    On the other hand, it has been confirmed by Microsoft that Windows 8 on ARM tablets will not be able to run Windows applications, only Metro applications (of which there are currently none).

    A Metro ARM tablet may be light, and have a decent battery life, but it will be useless for running Windows applications.

    From a developer’s viewpoint, it means that they will need to continue development of their Windows applications (32-bit & 64-bit) to run on desktop/notebook/Intel tablets, also develop a Metro version of their applications for Intel processors, a Metro version of their applications for ARM processors, and also make sure that all of their Windows and Metro applications work with multi-touch for tablets and also with keyboard and mouse for PCs.

    A nightmare.

  6. DaveD says:

    Why a unified OS?

    I think this version of Windows is a sign of desperation to remain a showcase. Desktop OS is fading into the back room to be a basic tool for content makers. Microsoft is trying to make the desktop Windows stay relevant in the mobile realm while Apple has moved on. The Mac market continues to grow due to more and more Windows switchers.

    This may be another Vista in the making. Perhaps, Microsoft will only have a single version, Windows 8 Total Edition, to sell in 2012. The price at $29.98 or $30 (Lion-like pricing) to goose sales like what HP did for its TouchPad.

    • Colstan says:

      @DaveD, Good point. I think the computer market is becoming more like an appliance market. You select the operating system and hardware based upon the task the device is designed to do. Windows 8 doesn’t seem to be designed to excel at anything. It’s not that the desktop is fading or merging, but simply becoming one of many devices designed to do a specific job. Apple understands this, and so has tailored its operating system and hardware based upon the device. High-performance Intel hardware paired with Lion make for an excellent desktop system, while the iOS matched with low-power ARM devices make sense in the mobile sector. Seeing how Windows market share is being squeezed at the low-end by the iPad, and at the high-end by the Mac, Apple’s current strategy is working. Apple has developed a symbiotic system of cross-polination between products, while Microsoft is tossing everything plus the kitchen sink into the marketplace.


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