What is Windows?

30/03/2013

I have been meaning to write about Windows 8 for a while now and as the discussion starts around Windows “Blue” I thought it is a good time to reflect a little about Windows 8.

I think the biggest misconception among people and tech journalist is the distinction between Windows (the platform) and Windows the products build from that platform and Graphical interfaces that we use in those products to interact with Windows. I think if everyone just step back a moment and remember these things, we might be in a far better position to understand what is happening going forward.

Windows firstly is a platform that consists of a Kernel (abstraction layer between hardware and software, currently 6.2 in Windows 8) with low level runtimes and API’s associated with it and some core key components, like a network stack and a driver stack. That is in its essence Windows!

Now, prior to Windows 8, the runtimes was called Win32 (an evolution of Win16). Every application known to Windows was build using these. They were presented in a Graphical User interface called the Desktop. The Desktop really is just a tablecloth; the table is Windows (Kernel and runtimes). You still with me?

The Desktop allowed us to interact with Windows, to run applications on top of Windows, configure Windows in a way that is simple, easy and non-technical (I am being generous).

In Windows 8, the table that is Windows got expanded. We still have Win32 runtimes from previous Windows, but added is a new set of runtimes called WinRT. These I would like to think of like the in-laws, they don’t talk to the rest and think they are better, but they are civil and they sit around the same table and they are still the same family. These set of runtimes have their own graphical user interface and their own ways to interact and configure Windows, called the Start screen and Charms.

Now that we are clear as to what is Windows (the platform), what is runtimes (Win32 and WinRT) and what is Graphical user interfaces (Desktop and Start Screen, charms) we can look at this and say WOW, what a mess and Microsoft kindly called this a product and named it Windows 8.

So how is Microsoft evolving this mess forward with Windows Blue / Next / 9. Firstly, it is consolidating the interface to configure Windows. It is duplicating the Control panel (Desktop) functions in the PC settings (Start and Charms). I am not sure if they will remove Control panel in Blue already, but I suspect you might find that some of the duplication being removed going forward, with PC settings remaining as the sole way of configuring Windows.

At some stage I think it is possible that Microsoft could / might remove the Desktop completely. (Now please breath) Desktop is just a user interface. The runtimes to make your application run will still be there (it is Win32 that makes your applications sing, not the desktop). One way of doing this will be to ring-fence / fortify Win32 runtimes. Either by UAC every time you run an application or once when you authorise it to run. This way you can negate the negative impact of unwelcome Win32 application (malware). Full screen applications are the easiest, since they run full screen already. For windowed applications they could easily use the Start screen background and tattoo as the back ground for the application to run. It is one way to eliminate the confusion that the duel nature of Windows 8. Doing this, they could make these application basically run just like WinRT applications, each one on their own (just like a virtual machine) without the penalties of virtualisation as these application will still be native. You might even be able to save their state and suspend them.

Or they could choose to maintain the Desktop interface going forward, run all your Win32 applications like you do today, but that environment will be nothing more than just a way to present your legacy applications.

One can also dream and maybe they enable to new “Desktop” where both WinRT and Win32 applications run side by side windowed or full screen as needed. One can dream I said!

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2012 – The dawn of a new age

07/05/2011

I have been dreaming computers for too long it seem. There are few new developments of late that truly impress me or that have me excited. The problem is that is all of the same from before, just faster, thinner and smaller.

The last time I was truly impressed was the original Macbook Air. Here was a design that I thought, this is truly 21st century. Hopefully the likes of Dell and HP will join the party and make laptops attractive and truly mobile. Sadly I was wrong. It is only now, after years that the Air has been in the market that the rest of the field is catching on. Meanwhile, it took Apple itself to refresh the original Macbook Air to once again take my breath away and remind me that this is the 21st century.

But it is not only the Macbook Air that gives us a glimpse of what computing should be. The whole idea of a tablet like the iPad just scream 21st century. It is probably what we all imagined the future of computing will look like. From the form factor to the touch interface, all that is missing is voice recognition and we have something the best science fiction writers would conjure up at the dawn of mainstream computing in the 80’s.

The real question is why is the rest of the computing industry struggling to beat Apple? The iPad is doing well. People are queuing to buy them. If you look closely at the underlying technology, and you ignore the hyperbole Apple spew about the fantastic engineering, than you will realise that the iPad is as generic as they come. There are no special Apple secret hardware engineering here. It is all components off the generic shelve, assembled and….packaged. This is the true Apple engineering secret! Apple knows how to package it, price it and most importantly, dial into our inner geek and get us to stand in line to buy it.

You want to beat Apple, you will have to learn how to package: 8 hours battery life, thousands of applications, thousands of movies, tv shows and music, thousands of books, full desktop browser, simple to use, build in camera, video calling, always connected, responsive screen, great touch interface, easy to develop for, low piracy… that is a tall order.

Hardware wise you can match Apple, and you have options. ARM based cpu’s is the obvious choice. They are powerful, scalable and customisable. They are built by a range of suppliers and you can either pick readymade chips or design your own. There is also Intel with Atom. While this is an option at the moment, it is not a good option. Current versions of Atom are to power hungry, which will negatively impact battery life. Intel is about to introduce their next generation Atom that will probably go a long way to fixing these and other short comings. For the rest of the components, you can pick the same suppliers as Apple. You might find though that at Apple’s volume and exclusive supply agreements that you will probably end up with the bread crumbs, but let’s say you can find it. Looking at the market there are already plenty of people doing exactly that. HP, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, RIM, Motorola, the list is endless, but why are they not beating Apple.

The real issue is Apple’s one massive advantage, iOS combining iTunes and the app store. In the words of Steve Jobs himself, “the iPod is all about software” and so is the iPad.

So let’s look at the options the rest of the industry has when it gets to the software side of things and why 2012 might be the year Apple might finally find itself with real competition.

Right now we have WebOS, Android 3.0, RIM and Windows 7.

WebOS, which HP acquired from Palm is a possibility. It does have some merit. The problem is it is HP only. This is not per se a problem; iOS is Apple exclusive as well. The problem for HP is that they are no Apple and I doubt that they could pull an Apple any day soon. So WebOS is probably a non-starter and will remain so.

Android 3.0 is Google’s big push for the tablet industry. It is a good platform. Android has done wonders in the phone industry in a short time. The problem with going from phones to tablets is that phones is limited computing at its best. Tablets represent something bigger and more productive. Looking at the response from first generation Android 3.0 devices, it appears that Google has more work to do. The biggest obstacle for Google is app store. It does not have a universal apps store that can rival that of Apple. Android fragmentation is something that has hampered their apps store and developers alike. They are also lacking the multimedia content that Apple has at their disposal. If rumours are too believed, Google is working on these aspects, but at this moment in time…

RIM is a bit of a wild card, but one can apply the same things we said about WebOS. They have the advantage of the existing phone partners that will subsidise the device, but unless they can offer something better than Apple, it is still a wannabe product and at the current price, not a good showing.

That brings us to Windows 7. It is a fantastic OS. It does come with a bunch of tablet friendly interfaces and API’s, but at its core, it is way too heavy a choice for a “pad” product. It is too bloated, does not come with a native touch orientated UI and most importantly, it has a too high resource requirement for itself, let alone anything else. It was designed for a tablet in the vision of Microsoft, not in the vision of Apple. Microsoft’s tablet works with a stylus as primary input device whereas Apple’s work with touch. Windows 7 does support touch, but not as the sole and primary input interface. It biggest flaw is that it does not have an application store with easy access to applications.

The other problem with Windows as a pad OS is that it relies on x86 technology, which means you are limited to Atom as a processor choice. Currently, that will mean a bulky product to cater for the cooling and sufficient battery life.

If you look at the current available Software solutions, it becomes very clear why iPad is flying of shelves and why the rest just cannot muster any reasonable showing.

So what is different in 2012 and why is that the dawn of true mobile computing. Two rather big things will come to passing in 2012.

On the software side of things, Windows 8 is being built at a breakneck pace.  Windows 8 will natively support ARM processors. Windows 8 will support an application store and a new, easier application building tools derived from Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft has awoken to the “Apple tablet vision” and they are not tweaking to make it work with their software, they are rebuilding and ramping up to pick a fight.

Microsoft is finally emerging as a new re-energised company after 10+ years in the doghouse for its anti-trust ridden past. In a way they are the same company with the same goals, but they are executing it very differently. They have several things going for them already.

They have existing movie and music agreements in place from their Zune days. Windows is build with DRM tech build in. Something Android, or rather Linux does not have and which is a prerequisite for digital media content. They have proven that they can build a primary touch interface with Windows Phone 7. They have a big gaming service that scales to desktop Windows and phone Windows. They have existing ties to OEM’s. They pioneered generic OS’s. They learned a bunch of lessons from Windows Phone 7. I bet you right now that the Windows on tablets will be closer to the desktop version of Windows than the phone version.

Looking at what Windows 8 brings to the table, Microsoft might be the first company to cover all the bases and bring the fight to Apple on the software side. They are no Apple, but they have proven in the past that does not matter, they talk partners and generics better than anyone and with that comes economy of scale and price!

Windows 8 will also enable the merging of the mobile and desktop worlds which will be a catalyst of the dawn of 21st century computing and the catalyst of a battle that have been predicted and brewing for some time.

ARM is scaling their processors up via their mobile platform by ramping up the clock speed and core count in their cpu’s.  Intel is shrinking their desktop chips down to meet ARM in the mobile space. The table is set for a battle but the stakes are much higher now. Stagnation in computer requirements for everyday computing and the availability of Windows on ARM will mean a battle on phones, tablets, netbooks and laptops and everyday desktops.

2012 might be the year predicted that Earth comes to an end. I would rather more safely predict as the year that we are finally going to see 21st century computing and more bizarrely a world still happy with Windows.


To SSD or not to SSD

19/03/2011

The question is rather redundant since I already bought the SSD, but I would like to take some time to discuss this.

For me the biggest problem to overcome with an SSD was the cost. At R21 a megabyte, it is all but cheap. So why did I buy it?

I am first to admit that I am a bit of a computer geek and gadget lover. So the prospect of owning something that is not exactly main stream is very appealing. The days of buying things on impulse are far gone, I just can’t afford it anymore, the cost of growing up and owning a house I supposed.

I have this tradition where I buy myself something whenever I pass an exam or receive a promotion or increase. So passing an exam that I wrote 7 times is as good a reason as any. It came down to choice between a new graphics card and a new storage system. In the good old days I would have bought both.

One of the primary reasons why my last computer upgrade was not perceived to be that great was the fact that I retained my two aging 360Gb SATA hard drives, not exactly cutting edge.

I have read a lot about SSD’s. So going in I knew that I will see faster boot times. What I got however is hard to explain in mere words. It is best to experience it in person. To tell you that booting from cold (power off) to desktop in 32 seconds does sounds impressive. The old configuration could do it in 62 seconds, which I thought was rather good.

But apart from bragging about boot times, what impact does a SSD have on your computing experience? You see this is where the true beauty of SSD’s comes in. No benchmark can measure the fact that with an SSD in place, Windows is fast and responsive as any other hand held tablet made by the company with a fruit for a name. You click on a program, it is available almost instantly. In fact, even slow starting Firefox feels fast loading. This to me is the true benefit of an SSD. For the first time my computer feels cutting edge.

As for the rest of the upgraded storage system, the Black Western Digital SATA3 1Tb drive is exactly what I was looking for, a fast conventional hard disk with loads of storage at a reasonable price. I only buy Western Digital and I only buy a hard disk with a 5 year warranty. I have always felt that paying that small premium is worth it.

The only question remaining, what is next to be upgraded?