Microsoft’s latest in a series of Windows 10 show-offs yielded, seemingly as planned, attention for two display products under development — the 3D personal HoloLens and the giant Surface Hub. But the risk is not in these designs which, though very sexy, would cause little damage if they never made it to market. The challenge is Microsoft’s latest effort to unify its software as Windows across its product lines in reality, not just branding.
Microsoft has always been a bit ambiguous about the meaning of Windows. In the beginning, Windows was an operating system for PCs built on x86 processors (there were occasional stabs at other chips, even the PowerPC, but none survived for long). But versions varied. From the introduction of Windows NT in 1993 until the unifying release of Windows XP in 2001, Microsoft offered two families of Windows for PCs based on very different code
Early mobile Windows. The Pocket PC, a competitor of the Palm (( Microsoft wanted to call it the PalmPC, but was beaten down by the threat of lawsuits)), bore a resemblance to Windows in appearance but almost no relationship to the code. As Microsoft looked for the success in Windows Phone, the company fiddled with making it a winner. But it never got the display to work satisfactorily, nor found a way to unify the PC and phone code. Windows has moved closer with Windows 7 and Windows 8 and will get there with Windows 10 (9 has been skipped).
Windows is a bit odd from other approaches to operating systems, however. Almost everything except BlackBird’s software is built on Linux or, in the case of OS X and iOS, Linux’s cousin BSD Unix. But Linux is just an operating system in the classical sense; the file systems, user interfaces, and everything else are done separately. Android is built on Linux.
Unix’s children. OS X and iOS are both built on Unix, but are separate code from each other. They share some APIs but nowhere near all of them; for example, OS X does not have the phone functions and screen touch that are critical to iOS. But Windows will have the same full OS for all products.
Although Microsoft has said this, it is not completely clear what it meant. Microsoft Vice President Joe Belfiore tweeted information explaining the difference between “desktop” versions of Windows for PCs and any devices with displays bigger than 8″ and the “No dsktp” version for phones and smaller devices.
The veteran Windows watcher Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet did her best to make sense of what she calls “the muddy waters.” One problem is Microsoft is coming up with so many APIs for different products. There is one basic version designed for devices running on ARM processors, including Lumias and other manufacturers’ Windows Phones and any tablets with displays less than than 8″. What Microsoft refers to as the Desktop SKU ((The use of SKU, which stands for stock keeping unit, is mysterious. It is normally a retailing and wholesaling term used to describe specific versions for stocking and pricing, but Microsoft seems to use it for versions of Windows used for different products.)) are devices including desktops and laptops as well as larger tablets. It’s not clear how many versions there will be for consumers and business customers, but there will definitely be special versions for HoloLens and the Surface Hub. (Microsoft has not yet talked about Windows Server and its code relationship to Windows 10.)
The fate of Surface RT. There will also be a Mobile SKU, described by Foley: “The Mobile SKU is aimed at devices with small RAM and disk requirements. It’s built for locked down devices, though, in theory at least, it could run on a device with any size screen.” One question is whether Microsoft will find a way to revive something replacing Surface RT, a sort-of tablet running a stripped down Windows 8, without the Win32 component, which permits the use of pre-Windows 8 versions.
Windows RT was a flop, both on the Surface and a handful of other tablets. One of the major flaws was the fact that pre-Windows 8 applications would not run and new Metro apps did not develop quickly enough–or even by now–to make a Windows version that couldn’t run them be attractive. Would the version of Windows 10 for the 10″+ tablet run Win32? Microsoft’s division at 8″ also rules out the approach of Apple, along with Samsung, HP, Lenovo, and other makers of Android tablets, of offering functionally equivalent tablets with screens between 7″ and 10″.
This all gives the evidence of why the operating systems story at Apple is so much simpler. iOS goes on the iPhone, iPad, and what’s left of the iPod (a stripped-down iPhone). The Apple Watch will use a version called, of course, Watch OS. One version of OS X runs on all Macs. Apple got out of server hardware and Xserve in 2010 and abandoned the Mac Pro Server in 2013. It now offers the OS Server, which is just a $20 add-on of server management for Yosemite intended for using a standard Mac for low demand server applications.
It would be nice if Microsoft’s offerings were as simple as Apple’s but the world of Windows is much more complex and, in the line of PCs, much bigger. We haven’t even seen the pricing plans yet (except for the free upgrade of Windows 8) but we can expect it will be expensive. But Microsoft doesn’t have the beautiful, simple freedom of supplying an OS to its own hardware and always updating it without charging users.