Short Cuts 58

by Paul Stephens

Paul Stephens takes a sideways look at the world of IT.

HardCopy Issue: 58 | Published: November 1, 2012

Windows Crazy

“Has Microsoft gone bonkers?” is a question we get asked regularly here at Short Cuts. Usually it’s after a Steve Ballmer webcast, and we answer “he’s really a shrewd guy who only does the wild man act to shore up his company’s flagging profile” then get quickly back to Bad Piggies. With the latest round of Windows launches, however, things look a bit more serious.

For a start, the company seems to have got a bit carried away over consumers. It’s true that Apple has made enough money out of consumers shelling out for iPads and iPhones to elbow Microsoft cruelly aside in the “most valuable company in the world” stakes, and that must have hurt. But Microsoft’s response, making Windows 8 boot into an interface first seen on the Zune music player while relegating the faithful Desktop to the role of 21st century DOS box, may well turn out to be ill-judged.

Windows 8 home screenshot

Corporate users may be reluctant to leave Windows XP for a life on the tiles.

It smacks a bit of Auntie BBC pandering to the ‘yoof’ market with ‘groovy’ shows designed by middle-aged executives, crossed with a gastropub redevelopment that relegates the old regulars and their dartboard to a small corner next to the toilets. (“No, the Start menu’s gone, Arthur, and you can’t bring your whippet in here anymore either.”) It’s not insurmountable – you can soon get to the ‘real’ desktop, and add a Start menu of sorts with third-party widgets like Pokki – but it seems designed to make desktop diehards feel unwelcome, and in many cases it’ll work.

Unfortunately Microsoft seems to have forgotten where a lot of those desktop diehards will be – the corporate market, where it still gets vast amounts of income. The company struggled for years to convince corporate users that it, and Windows, were serious players; now they’re going to make their desktops start up looking like giant phones, complete with live-tiled social network integration and Angry Birds on tap from the Windows Store. In a market segment where many Windows XP users still refuse to embrace the unwarranted fripperies of Vista and 7, that one may struggle for traction.


Keep taking the tablets

Samsung Note II phone

Could Samsung’s 5.5-inch Note II ‘Phablet’ trigger a fourth mobile OS from Microsoft?

As well as the consumer business, there’s also the phone/tablet business. Apple and Google take a similar view on this one, namely that a single OS covering everything from a phone to a 10-inch tablet is the best solution. This isn’t unreasonable, since smartphones are essentially small tablets, and vice versa, so it’s easiest for developers, manufacturers and users if the software environment is the same.

Microsoft sees things differently. It’s covered the phone/tablet space with three operating systems – one aimed at big tablets but also covering desktops and laptops, one for ordinary tablets, and another for phones. They’re all called ‘Windows’ and they’re all quite similar – but nowhere near as similar, from a developer or user’s perspective, as iOS or Android are when running on the same range of kit. How Microsoft would cover Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2, a 5.5-inch ‘Phablet’, is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably best not to ask in case it produces a fourth OS.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Microsoft has made a serious boo-boo in splitting its coverage of smaller tablets and phones between Windows RT and Windows Phone 8, and that the sooner it eradicates one or both of them in favour of a single iOS/Android competitor the sooner it’ll start getting taken seriously as a mobile platform vendor. In the meantime Apple will no doubt be adding “doesn’t boot up looking like a phone” to “hewn from a single piece of aluminium” in its MacBook ads.


An eye on the APIs

Finally, there’s the WinRT business. This doesn’t, on the face of it, affect users much, although it may end up doing so since the time wasted by bemused developers working through the claims and counter-claims of what WinRT actually is may cause a drought of Apps in the Store any time soon.

One thing we do know is that WinRT isn’t the same things as Windows RT, because it (WinRT, that is), is also in Windows 8, and in Windows Phone 8, which isn’t the same thing as Windows 8 or Windows RT, although it’s a bit like both of them. Some say that the ‘RT’ in WinRT (but not Windows RT) stands for ‘Runtime’, but that can’t be right because WinRT is officially a full-blooded, low-overhead, close to the metal API like Win32, the pair of them sitting alongside each other in the depths of Windows like two Gods of the underworld. However it turns out that WinRT achieves some of its functionality by executing Win32 calls, making it a consumer of Win32 and thus more of an – er – runtime, in which case where does that leave .NET and its Common Language Runtime, which is still supported on all platforms? (Answer: don’t ask, because we really haven’t got a clue.)

One view, expounded in no less an organ than The Guardian, is that WinRT is the Operating Systems division’s fight-back weapon against .NET, which was introduced by the Developer group and promptly elbowed its way in between applications and the OS guys’ beloved Win 32 API. Such tales of internecine warfare sound too far-fetched to be true, but then this is the company that’s just launched three separate OSs to cover the tablet/phone space, so all bets on what constitutes the bounds of reality are pretty much off.