Should Microsoft have aimed higher with Windows 10? Its specs match the last three versions of the OS, meaning it can run on hardware from 2006. Is that good?
Windows 10 is currently going through the beta cycle and people seem satisfied with it, not to mention very happy with how receptive Microsoft is to input this time around. It seems well on its way to getting a warm reception when it hits the market in the second quarter of next year.
However, one element of Windows 10 has left a few writers wondering if Microsoft is holding back on us. Hot Hardware was the first to note that the specs for the Windows 10 beta are identical to that of Windows 8, Windows 7 and Windows Vista, which shipped in 2006.
"I can't help wondering what we're actually giving up in exchange for holding the minimum system spec at a single-core 1GHz, 32-bit chip with just 1GB of RAM," wrote Joel Hruska.
So does Hruka have a point? Are we being denied a much more advanced operating system by having Windows 10 aim so low? Could we have a complex operating system with a gloriously futuristic interface like the dummy interfaces you see on TV shows like "Scorpion" or "NCIS?" Could we have a computer that's totally voice driven instead of requiring keyboard and mouse?
Yes, we could, but those features need not be at the OS level. In a good modern OS, most of the user-facing features are always at the app level, because you want to have that level of abstraction away from the underlying system, argues David Gewirtz, who teaches programming at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Things like a 3D UI and voice-driven systems are merely applications that could be built on pretty much anything. The OS is really the core: the basic connection between the devices, processes that run, memory, and applications," he said.
"Sure, we could use something like ZFS instead of NTFS and we could have some sort of native cloud-file integration, but in a well-designed OS, that's all abstract anyway and you should be able to plug-and-replace those components. Windows has much of that abstraction already," he added.
Most operating systems are really just a kernel or core, and those things just don't need all that much horsepower. Even a processor from 2006 can still process instructions faster than an SSD can feed the data and, in many cases, faster than a basic memory bus.
So coding to an older processor as a base doesn't really negatively impact the core OS. Device drivers are tiny, he notes. "I've built a language and command processor in all of 64K. Given that we now still need a few hundred K for some device drivers and megabytes for some other things, with the cost per gig in the pennies, it just doesn't matter," said Gewirtz.
Thin but scalable
Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group, concurred on the separation of apps and OS. "The minimum the OS needs is device drivers and low level code to recognize that. The trick is where do you draw the line on how much the OS knows the hardware and how much the app has to know about the hardware," he said.
"Originally it was thought the OS should be more and more responsible for that. The problem is you get large, bulky, memory-intensive and process-intensive OSes that aren't very flexible. The counterside is if the OS is too thin and doesn't do that for you, the apps become big," he added.
Enderle notes Microsoft is trying to build an OS that spans phones, tablets, desktops through to servers. Significant amounts of Windows code are shared between the phone, tablet, PC and server operating systems, including the kernels. While Windows 10 will work in a low overhead system, he said it will scale up.
That was one of the points of discussion on Slashdot, which picked up on the Hot Hardware story. One reader said keeping the overhead low is a good way to keep Linux from getting a toehold with aging but still working hardware.
After all, because Windows 10 share the same specs as Windows 7, that means in theory that every Windows 7 machine can be upgraded. Renee James, president of Intel, told the Credit Suisse Technology Conference recently that there are about 600 million PCs that are four years or older that are ripe for upgrades to Windows 10.
"If you got more cores, it will use them, but it doesn't need them. And it will run reasonably well on old hardware. So there's a much better chance it will run on an XP machine than Windows 8 would. And the big opportunity is XP migration. That base might go to Chrome or Android OS. So to keep that base they gotta keep the hardware requirements fairly low," he said.
Some of the features of Windows 10 don't even require local installation. Cortana, the voice-driven assistant from Windows Phone, is being added to Windows 10. It's currently not in the technical evaluation build being tested, but there are rumors it will be added come January.
Cortana has some interesting features, like understanding contextual questions, is tied to Windows apps and Microsoft Bing, and it has the "people reminders," so you can tell it to remind you of a friend's upcoming party.
All of that power isn't going to be on your PC. Cortana runs in the cloud. That means you need a constant connection to use it, which may make it a challenge to use in the field, but at home or at work, Cortana will be there for you and always updated.
Microsoft could have done more
While Microsoft is anxious to listen to customers and correct its mistakes from Windows 8, the company has gotten better about its not-invented-here attitude and is becoming more open-source friendly, it still doesn't play well with others.
Microsoft's operating systems don't read filing systems other than its own, NTFS and FAT, although it can be adapted to NFS with a little elbow grease, while Ubuntu Linux reads about two dozen file systems, notes Tom Henderson, principal researcher with ExtremeLabs. You can even connect directly to Amazon EC2 from the command line of Ubuntu and work inside of Amazon's shell. You won't do that on Windows without third-party apps.
So despite many changes over the years, Microsoft still exists in a Microsoft-only world. However, he doesn't see that as necessarily bad. "Microsoft's not-invented-here, and egotistical, even smug sense of dominance, has led to plentiful bright competition. Apple is much more open but certainly needs work. Linux openness has increased its momentum to the detriment of Microsoft's OS leads, and heavily influences Apple's openness," said Henderson.
In the end, the view is that Microsoft is providing enough OS to get the job done, at least with Microsoft products, and that many features some might want really belong on the app layer and are not the operating system's business.
Voice command is a good example. Enderle noted that the voice communications and dictation market was left in shreds following a scandal behind a major voice command firm, Lernout & Hauspie. The company went on a tear, acquiring every voice command software company it could, including the industry leader, Dragon Dictate.
Then L&H collapsed in a massive accounting scandal, taking all of the voice command companies with them. Nuance now owns Dragon Dictate but the scandal set back the entire field for years. "It's taken them at least a decade to recover from that mess," Enderle said.
And then there's the fact people may not want an OS that's too smart, said Gewirtz. "Sure, we could have better AI doing more predictive stuff, but users are freaked about the idea of Amazon Echo listening in to everything they do or to Google reading email to put travel directions in Google Now," he said.
So while Hot Hardware made a good point, in the end, Windows 10 is probably just what people need.