Microsoft's 'single Windows ecosystem' makes more sense than you think

In fact, you're probably using (part of) it right now

Microsoft made big headlines with an announcement some interpreted as meaning it was gearing up to try to re-take the computer world again by putting Windows on every electronic device in the world (by force if necessary).

Others assumed it was giving up and getting ready to give up the name "Windows" and compete on a more even basis with OS and apps makers in the phone, tablet and, eventually, the PC market.

Why it would give up the name, image and market power of an operating system hundreds of millions of non-technical people think of as "the regular computer" -- in the same way they think of even their own extreme provincialisms as a "regular" accent – is anyone's guess.

It's also anyone's guess how Microsoft was planning to re-take the computer industry it had a government-certified monopoly over in the 1990s and gradually lost as the Internet, the Web, the Cloud, the iPhone, the Smartphone, the Tablet and a host of other smart and smartish devices gave normal people powers and abilities far beyond those of cubicle rats trapped in the office because it was the only place they could get email.

Actually, it's everyone's guess.

The chatter was launched by a presentation Tuesday from Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Windows Phone division at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference in Los Angeles.

The core of it was that Microsoft wants to change "things" so there won't be "an ecosystem for PCs and an ecosystem for phones [and] one for tablets. They'll all come together."

"Our strategy," Lees said, "is that these new form factors are within a single ecosystem and not new ecosystems themselves".

As Computerworld columnist Preston Gralla pointed out, that doesn't mean all those things will come together under Windows.

It also doesn't mean Microsoft will have to go chasing comparatively small competitors in every one of those markets to compete on an even basis (as if it didn't own 80 or 90 percent of the world computer operating system market) to try to get them to all collaborate on a single, interoperable "ecosystem."

The confusion is understandable, given the requirement at Microsoft than any public discussion combine banal language and astronomically egotistical phrasing to make even the decision to visit the rest room sound like a statement of diplomatic purpose on the universality of its individual need to go pee-pee .

In its simplest terms, what Lees and other Microsofties were saying at the Partners' conference is that Microsoft is going to try to get out of its own way. It's going to try to stop competing with itself.

It's going to try to stop inventing an entirely new product to run on every new minor change in the physical layout of a computer even though the functions of the new box are almost identical and so are the functions of the old operating system and the new one.

If you make operating systems for a living, and there are five major classes of machine on which you want to run – servers, desktops, laptops, tablets and phones – it would be ridiculous to build a completely different one for each.

Wouldn't it be better if you started with a few core modules – a microkernel, a module to suck data in and spit it out, another to keep track of where it's gone, another to figure out what kind of memory or graphics or networking functions live in its immediate area and begin to adapt?

Porting those elements from one piece of silicon to another, one form factor to another, one type of device to another, is a lot easier than writing a whole OS from scratch, or buying one from someone else and trying to bolt on all the stylistic gewgaws that make it look like your OS.

If you can easily (compared to porting a whole OS) from one type of device to another, it's a lot easier to build in a hypervisor or executive-function layer of software that allows you to add whatever other functional modules you want without any of them having to talk directly to the actual hardware.

It's not quite virtualization, but it's close. Most Linux distributions are designed in similar ways, which is why it's possible for thousands of strangers to build software for it without ever meeting one another or, necessarily, knowing what any of the other development teams are doing.

Citrix' virtual-desktop suite and management apps do, too.

Clients that are lightweight enough to be ported easily from one device to another run on almost anything in common use. The primary purpose of those clients is to lie to the device they run on so the hardware believes all the streaming apps, streaming operating systems, remotely controlled virtual desktops and all the other things Citrix users can access were designed to run on that particular device.

Sure it's dishonest, but who worries about lying to their handheld?

Windows 7 already works that way – at least a primitive version of the modular approach Citrix has been following and Microsoft appears to want to emulate.

Call up Control Panel, choose Uninstall a Program and click on Turn Windows Features On or Off.

Voila: modular operating system.

You can install or uninstall individual services (Indexing, RIP, Search), large feature/functional sets (.NET Framework, Print and Document Services, Media Features), individual apps (Internet Explorer, Telnet, Games) and both server- and client-side software for a variety of Web and Internet functions that form critical parts of larger applications (Message Queue server, IIS server core and management, distributed network- and object-module management).

Raise that modular compatibility a couple of levels and you have a single operating system family that can move from one device to another with only a lot of development work rather than impossible amounts of development work.

And all those versions end up working fairly well together because most of the code is either identical or very similar.

Voila: a single ecosystem of Windows across many types of device.

And Microsoft no longer has to worry whether Vista is selling too slowly because people like XP and hate Vista, or by how much support costs will go up every time it ships a new OS because two or three or four other versions all have significant and stubborn bases of users who don't want to switch.

  • Eliminate the competition (from Microsoft);
  • cut development costs; expand the number of platforms on which you can run;
  • slash the amount of time it takes to port an OS to a new bit of hardware;
  • avoid all the long-term costs of supporting three versions of an operating system on each of five major platforms.

Sounds like a decent plan, actually, and one that focuses on the kind of operational efficiency and marketing focus business-guy Steve Ballmer was always good at, even if he was weak on the technical vision-thing Bill Gates always handled.

This ecosystem thing may be more than just a way to streamline Windows. If it works, it may be the thing that will make Steve Ballmer into a real leader at Microsoft, rather than just the sales guy keeping Bill's seat warm until another uber-geek takes over.

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