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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Windows 8 – The story so far

07/04/2012

I have been deliberately stayed away from writing about Windows 8 for a reason. I had a fairly negative feeling about Windows 8 from the developer preview. I wanted to take the time and work with Windows 8 for a while to see if the much further develop operating system can won me over, just like Windows 7 did a couple of years ago.

Microsoft will let us believe that Windows 8 are a no compromise approach to the future of computing. The one thing I want to say upfront is that that is the biggest failure of Windows 8. After working with it for more than a month, one cannot but feel that Windows 8 is all about a compromise. Let me explain.

Getting around Windows 8 is not intuitive. It is not like an iPad after you have used an iPhone or iPod Touch. Someone has to show you how it works and they have to explain to you how things fit together. Unlike previous Windows versions, bring your existing knowledge of Windows into this is not much of a help.

There has been a lot of complaining about how Microsoft could release this as a consumer preview without explaining somehow how it works. Well, if you have taken the time to work through the preview site a bit, you would actually come across a video explaining how to navigate. Now chances are no one looked at the site and they will be lost without that introduction. If there is something to take from this is that Microsoft should build a first run tutorial unlike any other Windows version before it. Otherwise they are going to have a rocky launch.

Once you get going and you are use to it all a couple of things become very apparent. Firstly, Metro on desktop computers is just stupid. Sorry, but Windows 8 on the desktop with a keyboard and mouse are just feeling like a stupid unnecessary compromise. This new stuff is build geared to tablets and iPad like devices. After a month, I only see the start screen when I power up the computer, just before I click the desktop icon.

I have configured the desktop with all my icons lined up or pinned to the taskbar. Somewhere along the line however, Windows 8 decided to stop remembering my icon layout on the desktop. So now I have icons that no matter how many times I move it, it returns to the wrong spot upon reboot.

The desktop itself have had very little changed except the start button is gone. Now this in itself is not really an issue. I have found that I used it very seldom anyway. The start screen, when configured gives you access your programs anyway, but the way that it works is a little compromised as well. It used the old start menu structure to give you your program entries and we all know how application installers like to dump hundreds of useless shortcut in there. The old start menu gave you an option to explore and clean it up a bit and you will still need to do it with the new start screen.

Once you are through all of this you end up with a computer that looks and works for the most part like Windows 7. The only problem is that you have to learn stupid gestures to do with your mouse to access stuff that was normally just a click away. Microsoft has been shouting since Windows 95 the power of right click and how you need all the immediate commands right there where you are. Well this philosophy is dead in Metro. Right click does not work with touch.  For touch you need big areas and travel over the screen is never an issue. So right clicking in Metro will give you options, but instead, they are on the bottom on the screen in a big band, awesome for touch, terrible for mouse travel.

Another stupidity is the inability to close an application. To do that, drag the program down, wrestle with the right or left snap in Metro before it closes. Why not include a cross on the right click options? Why make this so complicated. The reason, Metro is build for touch devices, and not desktop computers. There is no appealing reason for Metro and if you think it is only because the big gun apps have not been released yet, then you are mistaken. Metro is for simple applications, applications that can run on a touch based tablet. That is not the stomping ground for serious productive applications and once you get that figured out, you starting to see the problems with Windows 8. It is great for touch devices, yet you are still saddled with the touch unfriendly desktop. The desktop pc is saddled with Metro that is just not designed for workhorse loads and multitasking. In the end, they would have been better off to build various versions of the same code base, with different user interfaces, but this is Microsoft, you think they do the obvious well? Come on.


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 8: A page out of Windows 95’s book

17/06/2009

You have to remember that Microsoft is HUGE! They are under extreme scrutiny. Because of this, they move with baby steps…

When the first Xbox shipped a friend of mine told me how Microsoft is getting creamed in the market by the Playstation 2. How the Xbox was such a failure. I listen to him going on and on and then I smirked and told him this: “The Xbox is the only device connected to the internet and your TV. It is not about the games, it is about where the Xbox is located. It is in your living room, connected to your TV! Microsoft has taken the first step towards its future, delivering your entertainment live to you, via its network and proprietary technology to your TV via their set-top box.” He laughed at me….called me crazy.

Well, we are half way through this console cycle allegedly…am I still crazy?

Here I am typing this post in Windows 7 RC 64bit and I am thinking again. Thinking of all the beta testers moaning about how different this release cycle has been from times of old. One Beta, one RC, little to no time to sent Microsoft feedback, to impact the development. Yes, they are right, this is a very different Windows release, but why are they surprised?

Let’s see: New head of Windows development, check. New Chief Architect, check. New CEO, check. People are surprised that things are different? Why?

There are two clues inside Windows 7 that tells us a little about Windows 8 and beyond…

IE 8 is a program again:
Huh? Yes, it is a program again. You see for years Microsoft told the world that IE is a systems component, one with which the operating system could not do without. Then with Windows Vista, Microsoft consolidated the network stack into one. Before then, Internet traffic, network traffic and wireless traffic all had their separate stacks. With Vista, that went out the window. This was the first piece in the unhinging of IE from the OS.

You see the biggest downside of building IE into Windows is the gaping security holes it brought with it. With Vista the goal was security. Best way to do that was to unify the network stack behind a single line of defense. It has broken every wireless driver out there in the process, but it has improved security 100 times. This little move was also the foundation of the decoupling of IE. You see IE 7 had an enhanced protection state under Vista, because under Vista, it was more like a program than a system component. Baby steps…with IE 8 this transition is complete.

A week ago Microsoft told the world plus dog that it is not shipping IE 8 bundled into Windows 7 in Europe…Why, because IE 8 is just a program, one that is free of Windows. One that can be much easier reengineered and updated. One that is no longer tied to the Windows cycle or thinking of old, a program free, a program that once again has the legs to run and catch up to the pack, hell one that can even lead the pack…

Windows XP mode is the most important experiment in the history of software
What is the biggest complaint levelled at Windows? Windows is bloated, a system hog. True, the problem of being everything for everyone and 20 years worth of backwards compatibility. Let’s face it, which is what makes Windows so great, is also its single biggest liability.

Hello Windows XP Mode, only for business this time round, but a massive experiment for something on a far larger scale. If Microsoft pulls this off, it will be the foundation of the solution of the future.

I will bet you top dollar that the systems engineers at Microsoft would love to build a truly new operating system, one designed for the next decade. The problem, they can’t. Say it, backwards compatibility!

What is the biggest roadblock in Windows Vista roll out? Legacy and custom written software that only works in Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6, so, Windows XP mode! For Windows 7, they tell businesses, see, your apps run natively seamless inside Windows 7, because we have build Windows XP right into it. Not just some of it, all of it! It even integrates into your Start menu. Just buy selective Intel processors or any AMD CPU’s and invest in some RAM and Voila! No more need to complain or cling to Windows XP!

But let’s take this as baby step one. What if they blur the lines between Virtual PC and Windows? What if they add DirectX 9 support? Suddenly, they don’t need compatibility modes at all! Suddenly the overhead carried within the OS is much less…Suddenly the idea of the next Windows being truly next generation seems far easier to achieve than previously thought…Suddenly that little move to buy the best Virtual PC vendor out there is no longer about server software and keeping up with the Jones’s …but desktop software and the future of Windows.

You know what? I am sounding crazy again, just as loony as telling a friend that the Xbox is all about delivering entertainment to your living room via the Microsoft device attached to your TV…

So what is my Windows 8 prediction? 64 bit only. Office 2010 is coming in a 64bit version with a reason, it is Microsoft’s cue to let everyone know, it’s time. Make the switch; we are moving our single biggest important piece of software to 64bit. 100% backwards compatibility via Virtualised technology instead of compatibility modes and a next generation Internet Browser, which is not based on IE 8, but brand new technology!

To end this fairy tale…Why the heading; A page out of Windows 95’s book? Well simple, the tag line for Windows 95 was it is all about the platform! Well Windows 7 is the first Operating System in 14 years from Microsoft that shows signs of that old philosophy again. I will venture a guess now and say that Windows 8: IT IS ALL ABOUT THE PLATFORM!