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The Universal app platform is our future platform–Terry Myerson

On Thursday morning in Shenzhen, China Microsoft held their second Windows Hardware Engineering Community event (WinHEC). At this event a number of new hardware initiatives were announced; but the one everyone is still discussing is Windows 10 for ARM chips with x86 emulation.

For those that don’t know this is “full” Windows running on mobile processors with the ability to run legacy x86 programs; things like iTunes and Chrome. This is in addition to the newer mobile apps built on top of the Universal Windows Platform (UWP).

The new ARM news brings up a lot of interesting topics and questions with one being the future of universal Windows platform.

What is UWP

The Universal Windows Platform is simply the developer platform for making software for Windows. It makes use of a number of different languages such as XAML, C, C#, win JS, and .NET. UWP based applications can run across all device screens running Windows; so they can be used on mobile, PC, Xbox, HoloLens, and Internet of Things (IoT headless) devices. UWP apps are usually touch enabled or are built for things other than the classical PC. UWP apps are different from .exe x86 programs because they were designed to be sandboxed away from the underlying bits of a device and restricted in how they can change functionality.

If you want a real overview of the history of UWP please read Peter Bright’s article on Ars Technica.

While Microsoft executives and program managers have stated UWP was the future of Windows development many still wondered. For one the platform lacked features found in older developer platforms like WPF. Second was Microsoft’s recent history of creating then retiring platforms in haphazard manners. Third has been the need to maintain x86 for legacy support.

UWP vs x86

The big issue facing UWP (amongst other) is x86. For the purpose of this post x86 is the current set of technologies to make programs; also it implies these programs can only run on Intel chips.

x86 has been the main platform for Windows for the better part of three decades. Most applications people use is based on it. However x86 development has waned over time. X86 is a mature platform, but it has limitations. For one x86 has no app model. Second it has security issues in the form of programs having no set limitations. Three, X86 is quite power hungry. For not designed for the mobile world.

Going forward: Wither x86 or UWP?

So which wins: x86 or UWP?

Well after the most recent WinHEC x86 and UWP will coexist but UWP will supplant x86 over time.

 

Mobility

Mobile has been a disruptive technology for almost a decade now. It shifted the fortunes of a number of companies; turning some into kings while making others paupers. Mobile devices have overtaken personal computers as the way most people compute.

Think about it; all the task we have associated with computing; gaming, doing bills, watching movies; is now done on devices we keep in our pockets. The mobile market grew exponentially faster than the PC market and has in many ways made the PC look like the mainframe; a relic for the back office.

Given the changes it becomes clear why Microsoft did a reboot with Windows Phone and also why despite failing to catch on Windows Mobile is still with us.

Continuum_Concept

Continuum Machine

Back at the beginning of Windows 10, Continuum was a feature that simply described modal use; tablet mode/pc mode and mobile/desktop-like experience. The Phone side of Continuum was always more intriguing because it was an adrenaline shot to a platform that had/has been given up for dead.

However as a feature Phone Continuum  lacked features to make it’s desktop truly functional. The feature resembled Windows RT; only one app can be seen at a time along with the additional restriction to apps built to UWP guidelines. This changes with the next update for Windows 10. The Creator’s update will allow for windowing so multiple apps running on screen along with improvements for wireless connections. Add to this new reports of x86 emulation, allowing users to natively run desktop applications, and the idea of a phone replacing a computer for periods become feasible.

I have to say these latter features have shown up faster than expected given the last update to Continuum was around the Xbox controller. I should also note this makes the case for accessories like HP’s Lap dock for the Elite X3.

Design in Neon

Right after the Thanksgiving holiday it was reported that Microsoft was working on a new design language for Windows 10 codenamed Neon. While details are scarce Neon appears to a effort to improve and streamline the overall look and behavior of Windows.

For Mobile this will most likely mean improvements to the Start Screen and Continuum desktop experience. Neon may also pave the way for new devices like tablets and Chromebook style notebooks.

Focus on the Enterprise and Services

The last two years have seen Microsoft retrench its mobile efforts (much to the acrimony of users). It has been a period of slumping sales and write offs as Microsoft moves the mobile focus toward enterprises. Much of the announced and known information around Windows Mobile drives this home; x86 emulation and Continuum are primarily feature sets businesses probably asked for.

Microsoft is also continuing to push UWP to be the replacement for .exe and pure x86. Initiatives like Project Centennial are trying to put Windows developers on a platform path toward the Universal Windows Platform. They are also working on features to make UWP as powerful as x86 without too much baggage.

So what does all this mean?

Well right now little.

The Continuum features will arrive sometime in the next year and a little before for those using the Windows Insider program. Any additional features, especially something like Neon, are coming in another update codenamed Redstone 3 in late 2017. And with what we know there are still questions. For example what will be the consumer facing features? Will there be new partners for hardware and software?

According to reporting done by Mary Jo Foley Microsoft is working with Qualcomm on getting the emulation feature working on their newer chipsets. Which is fascinating and proves the company is still committed to mobile. However this work is happening on a platform with no real pull in mobile (and statically no real share of the market). So where does it go from here?

2017: The Slow Return of Windows Mobile

Recently both Microsoft’s CEO and it’s head of Windows have been asked about mobile. The questions follow the usual script in which Microsoft acknowledges it missed mobile and that yes, they are committed to Windows Mobile and mobile hardware. Now Ms. Foley asked the million dollar question: Why bother?! I mean Windows Phone is dead and most want Redmond to follow the list of the former mobile leaders on the path to wherever Android is going. Or why not quit and restart like Nokia.

“When you stop investing in these things, it’s super hard, super, super hard to restart. And at Microsoft, we have a few of those examples where we stopped.” This was the response from Windows chief Terry Myerson. He also cited the ARM chipset and cellular as additional reasons for mobile continued existence.

In my opinion I think Microsoft understands where it is in mobile. I remember an interview done with Microsoft’s Chief Marketer in which he talked about needing to create something that would be truly compelling for phone buyers. His statement was echoed by Myerson and Nadella. This acknowledgement that whatever is coming needs to be truly compelling and groundbreaking to overcome Windows Mobile shortfalls.

So in 2017 expect to see features and functionality added that 1) closes some feature gaps with iOS and Android 2) Bring parity between mobile and pc 3) Entice more hardware partners to join and 4)Provide better user experiences. This will occur alongside updates for the PC so don’t look for a mobile specific update, yet.

Now beyond that I feel like long term Windows mobile’s future will be in helping Microsoft define the future of mobility. I’m talking about something that may go beyond the best guest work around mobile’s future form; or maybe just move the needle to where most think its going. This includes Windows mobile finally running on tablets and possibly laptops similar to Chrome OS. And even then this is leaving out aspects like AI, bots, mixed reality, and inking.

Before reading the article posted today on Windows Central I have to admit I was nonplused by what was coming down the pike for Windows. The fact is Windows as an OS needs a make over but can’t get one because legacy keeps it afloat while drowning it.

And I know a lot of people need and require software built on top of x86 but it does prevent things moving forward.

Then Neon happened and my inner UI nerd fainted.

 

neon

image: New Creation

 

Metro 2.0

According to Zac Bowden at Windows Central and Cassim Kefti at Numerama Neon is the codename for the next interface update to Windows 10. Kefti says internally Neon is being described as “Metro 2.0” in reference to the UI introduced with Windows Phone. Windows Central describes it as a streamlining of various efforts to bring level of coherency throughout the system. Neon also looks to add new animations and transitions to Windows 10. Neon also appears to be an effort to integrate new UI elements for augmented and virtual reality headsets. The timeline for the changes according to both articles seems to be Redstone 3, the update planned for 2017.

Neon

So what do I think? Honestly I am hyped by the news nd the possibilities. The news follows reporting from ZDNet about x86 emulation running on ARM for Windows Mobile. The emulation news was preceded by new mobile features coming with Windows’ next update. All this adds up to interesting times ahead for Windows mobile users and enthusiasts.

Now that was the hope. Here is the wants and needs.

First, there needs to be a visual update to both the Start Screen of Windows mobile and the start menu/tablet mode on Windows 10. I include them together because those are the public facing parts of the OS and the ones users use when mobile or without a keyboard. Windows 10 is fine for tablets but can always use improvements.

Second more features for Live Tiles and the lock screen. Neon is the perfect opportunity for features like Interactive Tiles or anything that moves the Tile metaphor forward. Also the Lock screen has been there sitting waiting to be unleashed; maybe the work of Microsoft’s Arrow Launcher could help.

Last, seamless integration of mixed reality into the platform. Windows has merged touch with the mouse and keyboard and no it was not easy. Hopefully they learned from those growing pains.

Honestly it’s early days and I will be revisiting this topic in future.

Yesterday’s Windows 10 event left a lot of information on the table to parse through. Amongst the news provided was around upgrade paths for users on Windows 7, 8, and Windows Phone 8.1 devices. For the first year anyone wanting to move up to Windows 10 can do so for free. And that upgrade will include upgrades and support for the lifetime of that device.

Cool right? But what about devices running Windows RT? This is where it gets complicated.

Now as I write this at least two articles, one by Kevin C. Tofel GigaOM and one by Tom Warren The Verge, are writing the obituaries for the Windows version built for ARM devices. The reason is it wasn’t listed on the board when Windows chief Terry Myerson talked about pricing. When asked specifically about Windows RT a Microsoft spokesperson said, quoting the Verge,

We are working on an update for Surface, which will have some of the functionality of Windows 10. More information to come.

Now on the face of it this does mean ARM based Surfaces and other Windows RT devices (from Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Samsung) won’t get the Windows 10 we saw on Wednesday. But they are getting an update, so what does it all mean?

I am going to take the  contrarian view on RT’s death; partly because it got combined essentially into Windows Phone. However another reason is that the device running Windows RT are outliers in the dividing line of Windows 10. Let me explain, Windows 10 splits the version a user gets depending on screen size; the version that ran on RT devices has now been reassigned to small tablets under 8 inches and phones. Most RT devices in the market are mid size (10-11.6) making the new ARM SKU a no go.

My best guess based on what has been said is Microsoft is preparing a SKU that will fit RT devices. It won’t be Windows 10 but close enough to get said features. However if I am right this version will probably feel like Windows Phone 7.8; the stop gap provided when Windows Phone made the cut from Windows CE.

Now Microsoft could well kill it off but I’m not sure they want to leave these users hanging.

I just don’t want to hear the bitching.

UPDATE 1/23/2015: So Paul Thurrott has posted his own opinion on the matter (he asked the question about the update during the Q&A afterwards). Also Microsoft added this to the Windows 10 page:

It is our intent that most of these devices will qualify, but some hardware/software requirements apply and feature availability may vary by device. Devices must be connected to the internet and have Windows Update enabled. ISP fees may apply. Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8.1 Update required. Some editions are excluded: Windows 7 Enterprise, Windows 8/8.1 Enterprise, and Windows RT/RT 8.1. Active Software Assurance customers in volume licensing have the benefit to upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise outside of this offer. We will be sharing more information and additional offer terms in coming months.

I also wanted to add something to my earlier post. With Windows 10 Microsoft is ending Windows RT as it is now which is as the locked down version, tablet version of Windows. In my opinion the update planned to bring Windows 10 functionality to RT devices will be one where RT users can run Universal apps and access Cortana and Project Spartan. But it’ll be a one off.