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.


Windows Vista – People have realy short memories

04/07/2009

Someone told a person at the office who asked for advice on a new laptop to just ask for Windows XP, because Vista is junk. I asked him then, when did he try Windows Vista? His answer, I was suspecting was either launch or shortly after the launch. It turned out that he got a free upgrade with his computer that be bought close to launch of Vista.

Well, here is the honest truth…there is nothing wrong today with Windows Vista. Yes, at launch, it was a different story…but today, it runs smoothly, it works! Does it use more memory than Windows XP, yes it does. But so did XP over 2000 and 2000 over 98 and 98 over 95…Seeing a pattern…it is called progress! Besides, 2 Gb of RAM cost the same as 512 megs RAM that you needed to get XP to fly back in 2001 compared to the 256 needed for 98…

My point is this, Windows Vista got a lot of flak, some deserved, some severely undeserved. Let’s look back and let’s compare notes shall we? As a friend pointed out, I am getting old…so I can remember that far back…

When Windows 2000 launched in early 2000, Microsoft had trouble to sell it to business. They just added plug and play to the NT stack and things was not so rosy at launch. All drivers had to be rewritten to work with Windows 2000. It was buggy and it had issues. (Windows 2000 got 4 service packs.) Yet it became the defacto standard for business computing in the early 2000’s. 18 months later, enter Windows XP. The successor to 2000, aimed at business and home users.

Windows XP was horrible. I told a friend over my dead body! I am sticking to Windows 98. Windows XP RAM requirement was too high for games plus the drivers was just too lacking. Plus most of my games and older hardware was not working. Does this sound familiar?

When SP1 for XP rolled out and they have fixed compatibility, I dual booted. Truth is; I never looked back. I upgraded memory, because it got cheaper and the games at that time needed it.

By 2004, SP2 rolls out. Let’s face it, if Microsoft was Apple it was a new Operating system, and it cost money. People tend to forget how big a change SP2 was. It added a truckload of features to an already 3 year old operating system…gave it a second live.

It is also in 2004 that the world plus dog started to move in the business world to Windows XP.

I just want to point out here that the drivers of Windows 2000, worked in some circumstances in Windows XP, but in general new drivers was required…also that Windows 2000 was NT 5.0 and Windows XP was 5.1 and later 5.2…

Windows Vista, NT 6.0, was a big change, as big as between NT4.0 and Windows 2000. Huge! Microsoft did fairly well, some drivers of Windows XP actually worked in Vista and others needed a rewrite. But my point being here is that Vista was in no worst shape that Windows XP was on launch.

You see, you have to compare the move to Vista from Windows XP to the move from Windows 98 to XP. A lot of old hardware that worked in Windows 98 was not working in Windows XP, the drivers was slower under Windows XP. The OS used twice the amount of RAM…

Was Vista thus truly so bad? Remember the compatibility issues of Windows XP compared to Windows 98 before SP1? Remember the RAM requirement and the fact that some hardware never did work in Windows XP?

My question today is what about now? On the eve of the already very popular successor’s launch, how well does it actually stack up against Windows XP? If you gave me a copy of Vista today with SP2 loaded and current drivers and you give me Windows XP, same hardware, same programs, I will probably pick Vista. It is just a fact, period.

Microsoft operating systems is like a good pasta sauce, it gets better with time…

My final words to Windows Vista is sonny, you are not as bad as everyone is saying, in fact, you come from a good family tree, you added to the gene pool in a positive way. Just look to your offspring, Windows Server 2008 and Windows 7… Nothing wrong with that gene pool or blood line!

Viva Windows Vista, you are dead long before you had a change to truly shine, but take solace in the fact that your successor is off to a solid start thanks mainly to your efforts and pioneer work.


IE 8: Why the Europeans is going MAD!

16/06/2009

Let me start by saying that I am just an average Joe that started my computer life in good old DOS and I have a passion for all things computer and Windows related, yes, I am a Windows PC, and love it!

The last week Microsoft has made some big headlines about the removal of Internet Explorer 8 from Windows 7 in Europe.

Microsoft is firstly a monopoly. Been convicted as such multiple times, USA, Europe, Korea and even Russia I think. This is important to remember, because of all this has put them under huge scrutiny, more than most companies and some will argue, including me, with reason.

The second thing to remember is that Microsoft have not always been a good corporate citizen…They have done things in their long history that have let people to mistrust them and has made it easy to pick on them. No one likes a bully after all.

But here is the bottom line: bundling Internet Explorer is irrelevant today. This is what the EU has gotten wrong.

Microsoft beat Netscape by bundling IE, fact. They used their power and wide spread adoptability of IE thanks to Windows 95B and onwards to promote ActiveX which spawned a generation of web tech based on it. IE 5 and 6 was also very good and free, compared to that of Netscape. Was that anticompetitive? Hell yes!

So does that mean that because Microsoft kept on bundling IE that there is no market for any other browser? Hell no! But that is what Opera and the mad people at the EU would like us to believe.

Look, I am not justifying Microsoft at all, but come on. Microsoft biggest mistake it made was its own complacency. The time between IE 6 and IE7 was years, YEARS! In that time a little open source outfit stole the march on them. Firefox did all that, despite the bundling of the browser. Was that all the Linux users that has driven their market share, no, it was Windows users. People like me that liked the small, no thrills and faster browser. The world of the web has moved on and the big MS have been asleep at the wheel. ActiveX have become irrelevant for most sites, JAVA rules.

There is no second time around for Microsoft; they can’t get back what they had. If they could develop a killer proprietary tech to steel back the dominance from JAVA, they will be under such pressure to make it open it is not funny. It is the nature of the web today.

Their other problem is their own browser. The web is driven by JAVA and various other open web 2.0 standards. IE is optimised for ActiveX, not JAVA. Ultimately, that is there biggest Achilles heel. It is all about compliance to the standard today. The more they try, the more they break sites build for IE. It is the ultimate catch 22. IE 7 and 8 is steps in the right direction, but it is steps to keep up, not to steps to lead the pack!

Anyone that has looked at web share stats will tell you, IE is still bleeding market share. IE 7 and 8 has stopped some of the bleeding, but the rest is still gaining…and it is no longer only Firefox…there is Chrome, even Safari biting.

So please, EU, back off. The market is taken care of this, it don’t need regulation…