Best feature in Windows 8: Potential to take 'PC,' ditch the OS

Ditch the part that talks to hardware and users get virtualized 'computer' that goes where they do

What's the most interesting possibility with Windows 8? Being able to take everything else with you when you go.

What actually matters about Windows 8: You might be able to take it with you

The most interesting thing about Windows 8 is not one of one of the selling points Microsoft spokes-androids have been repeating all week. It's not one of the admittedly hot features most of the media are buzzing about, even – fast boot-up, support for touchscreens, tablets, styli, downloadable apps from an apps store, support for HTML5, faster and easier file copy and management, or even the vitally important support for USB 3.0 that should slash operational costs and increase productivity by slashing the time employees sit waiting for the MP3s, audio books and movies they downloaded at work trudge slowly onto their handheld media players.

It's not even the switcheroo Microsoft is trying to appear not to have pulled by moving HTML5 and JavaScript its favorite tools for Windows apps rather than the herd of other ultimate dev tools it built and touted in the past. (Read Mary Jo Foley for implications of the building controversy because she continues breaking the story and knowing what it means; then come back here because I'm far more entertainingly bitter.)

The most interesting thing isn't even how big a risk and how ambitious a project Windows 8 really is, whether Microsoft really intended that or not. That's the second-most interesting thing.

The most interesting – though admittedly distant and dim – possibility is that the combination of virtualization, personalization, standardization and mobilization may turn Windows into the personal computing environment Microsoft has always insisted it was – even though the rest of us always wondered what qualified an OS as steward of our increasingly complex digital lives when it would sometimes forget whether it had been installed yet, or how to talk to its own hard drive.

The personal operating environment has always been more of a marketing fantasy than a reality. Even now, when it's possible to stick so many pieces of your digital life in the cloud you can almost reassemble (though not in usable fashion) all the resources you have at your desk, "the cloud" is a more concrete reality than the personal operating environment.

The potential – and I'll try to avoid the superlatives and automagicality of the software-vendor imaginarium in describing this because I can actually see it happening for the first time – is that all the virtualization and connectivity built into Windows 8, added to the gradual consolidation of the core functions of Windows into code that can run devices other than just a PC, will convert what most people think of as "their computer" into a virtual environment they can take with them anywhere.

Cut Windows loose from the hardware

The most basic addition is the inclusion of the Hyper-V hypervisor in Windows 8 along with native support for the VHD virtual-desktop standard and ISO files that can load as software rather than only from a CD/DVD drive.

Initially the only thing that will accomplish is to make it easier to run Citrix XenDesktop within organizations that don't want to buy the client software.

It will also turn every Windows 8 machine into a good BYOC device because the hypervisor will make it possible for IT to create the same dual-personality for a PC that is possible with smartphones and tablets divided into one virtual machine for work and another for personal data, apps and other things users like to play with but that IT would never let into a secure environment.

Building a hypervisor into an operating system does something much more profound than just offer smarter disk partitioning: it severs the connection between the operating system and the machine on which it runs.

That means, not matter how much you cram into your laptop – your schedule and data and contacts and every other thing you can't fit in your head anymore – it's not the laptop that's important. It's the data and the method you rely on to find and use the data.

The operating system that talks to the hardware doesn't even have to be the same one users take with them in their personal operating environment.

Changing the "operating system" to talk to users, not hardware

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Traditionally the first job of an operating system was to talk to the hardware: tell the hard drive what to store and where, divide the memory among the applications, tell the WiFi radio what access points it can talk to and which it can't.

The filing system that let you find your documents, search for words inside docs you can't find, encrypt everything, shove it around on the hard drive and keep track of the apps, documents and entire filing systems full of other documents and data up in the cloud? That was a late addition.

Windows has never been that good at it, especially dealing with apps that stream in from elsewhere, live on the hardware a while and then go away and trying to remember where those other documents were and why they're not accessible right now even though they seemed to be on a drive that lived within Windows dominion.

Cut the connection to the hardware and there's a segment of the operating system that keeps talking to the hardware so it won't get lonely and freak out (hardware is neurotic).

The important parts will float on top of the hypervisor so they don't have to worry about hardware at all. The hypervisor will deal with it, leaving the main part of the OS to focus on keeping all those meshed connections straight, replicating things at the right time and in the right places so you always have them available and keeping everything wrapped up in a nice little envelope that makes all the apps and utilities and data and pictures and music and everything else you use as portable as the junk you cram in your shoulder bag and lug home at the end of the day.

That's an "operating environment."

With Microsoft taking care of most of the basic snippage between the hardware and software virtualization specialists like VMware, Citrix, Virtual Computer, MokaFive and others can focus on improving performance, encryption, management, portability and integration with different devices, clouds, networks, hardware and devices.

(They won't do it; VMware, Microsoft and Citrix will keep fighting over whose approach to exactly the same place is better until customers either start ignoring them or it becomes obvious no one wants to hear the competitive slagging any more. Figure sometime around Windows 9 SP1.)

With portability and the ability to divide responsibility for hardware and software within the OS, the operating environment (OE) can move from one piece of hardware to another more easily.

At first that means you can store your OE on the network, leave your laptop at home and call up your whole work "desktop" from a rental or public PC in a hotel, airport or other place you no longer have to lug a brick of a processing unit.

Portability and integration has a way to go before it's possible, but you'll gradually be able to pull up more and more of your desktop from a tablet, smartphone or other device of your choice.

Later (Win10) the integration and portability will be good enough that it will hardly matter what piece of hardware you're using to work on your "desktop." It could be a phone, game console, generic terminal and keyboard in the car (on the passenger side) or wherever else people sit still for more than five minutes.

Give kids the Legos and let them build what they want

ISVs and hardware vendors will have a party coming up with new form factors and cramming usable computers into everyplace you currently see advertising. After a couple of years of letting you use the machines free if you look at the ads, they'll start charging and that will become the big drawback of your "hardware spending."

The three things that could make all this possible are:

  • Inclusion and integration of the hypervisor to separate hardware functions from the end-user operating environment.
  • Consolidation of data, networking, security, file system and application development environments to remove the complexities of a single OE that uses data or application resources housed on a laptop, internal servers, cloud-based networks or apps, single-app SAAS providers and a variety of devices on which to run.
  • Licensing to make it all possible.

Of all the complications that could (and will) prevent or delay this kind of consolidation from happening, the single most dangerous one is the possibility (likelihood) than neither Microsoft nor other vendors will move quickly enough on licensing to change the basic unit of currency in the computer business from the Computer to the End User.

Licenses that remain attached to a single piece of hardware will stop even the most sophisticated, high-performing, tightly integrated user operating environment from working at all.

Universal mobility doesn't count if you have to lug your laptop around like a giant security dongle or magnetic ID card.

All licenses—for operating systems, applications, data, databases, streaming applications, streaming content and anything else that can stream, live in the cloud or attach itself semi-permanently to the environment of a particular user has to be licensed for use in a single environment, not on a single machine.

The danger of licensing: Make the money follow you

That means treating customers as people and individuals, not machines and "seats."

Microsoft has spent three years just trying to figure out how to make some of its applications available through the cloud without ticking off its resellers so much they pitch competing products instead of Microsoft's and put Microsoft out of business.

Three years, going on four! That's a long time in the computer business if you're doing something that doesn't involve overcoming or avoiding limitations to the laws of physics.

I don't doubt Microsoft and every other vendor will fight just as hard to keep up with the times technologically without changing its business model enough to make the technology practical.

The other drawback would be half commitments from other vendors and end users, who might like the concept of total portability, but not the realities, which involve a lot of trust in employees and support of things they don't really understand and the confidence that as long as they can identify the really critical points of failure and protect those, that the rest of the system will adapt around them.

Just as in the early days of server virtualization and every day in cloud computing, that reluctance to trust or believe in the existence of something you can't put your finger on and poke to see it jiggle will hold back the evolution toward the creation of an actual operating environment for end users – a desktop without a desktop, a PC without the PC.

It's hard to believe in even understanding how all the pieces could fit together. For those who see personal benefit or loss in warping or limiting the concept so it's not really an envelope of software and networks containing everything the user needs, it never will be.

Microsoft has been one of the main forces preventing it until recently. It's been driven by users rushing into the cloud and virtualizing everything in sight and doing mission-critical things on every phone except those made by Microsoft.

It's been driven to the point that it is adding a whole series of functions into its main product that will make at least half that product completely irrelevant while still hoping to make money on it.

It should be possible, even for Microsoft. End users don't really care if the operating system can find the hard drive anyway.

As long as it can find the documents and music and movies and networks and it all runs fast without any fuss or too much mucking around with configurations and drivers and carburetors or whatever it is all those IT people drone on about all the time, the only thing they care about is whether "the computer" has the things they need. Not what bits of metal and silicon it has to talk into bringing them along.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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