Could 'Menlo' signal a change in Microsoft's mobile strategy?

Could 'Menlo' signal a change in Microsoft's mobile strategy?

Summary: Microsoft "Menlo" is a hush-hush research project that is focused on replacing Windows Compact Edition (CE) with Windows NT, according to my sources. "Experiment 19" is a graphics platform researchers are building to complement Menlo, my sources have told me. I don't have a lot of details about these Research efforts beyond that -- so far, that is....

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I've been digging for a few months for information about two new Microsoft codenames and have come up with few clues. But I've decided to share what I have been able to surface in the hopes that others who might have additional pieces to share might help fill things in.

Microsoft "Menlo" is a hush-hush research project which seems to be focused on replacing Windows CE (known officially these days as Windows Embedded Compact) Compact Edition (CE) with Windows NT inside of mobile devices, according to my sources. "Experiment 19" is a graphics platform researchers are building to complement Menlo, my sources have told me.

The lead for Menlo is Galen Hunt, the Microsoft researcher who spearheaded Microsoft's Singularity research project, as he acknowledges on his bio page on the Microsoft Research Web site. (Singularity is a microkernel-based operating system developed by Microsoft Research, and supposedly the starting point for Microsoft's Midori effort.) Researcher Ruben Olinsky also is on the Menlo team, focusing specifically on "Experiment 19," as is/was Kerry Hammil, a (former) Microsoft Researcher who has worked on 2D/3D graphics programming interfaces for Windows.

Update: A reader sent in the following tidbit. Hunt's LinkedIn profile includes this information:

"Recruited researchers and engineers to build the MSR Operating Systems research group. Co-lead two of the largest cross-group research projects in MSR’s history: the Menlo and Singularity projects. Menlo combined OS, UX, and applications research to explore the future of computing when mobiles becomes users primary PCs. Singularity combined language, tools, and OS research to determine how to build more reliable systems and built a new OS from scratch in managed code. Managed cross-division relationships with product groups and relationships with key hardware partners, negotiated production of custom phone prototypes, designed and implemented major kernel and OS components, implemented runtime and compiler features, and wrote code for demos."

The few references to "Menlo" that I've found on the Microsoft Research page are brief and generic. From Olinsky's bio: "I work in Microsoft Research's Operating Systems Group as a research developer.  I'm currently working on the Menlo project and spending quite a bit of time tinkering in the mobile computing space." (Like Hammil, Olinsky has worked on technology that has found its way into Windows Vista/Windows 7.)

Here's another Menlo reference, courtesy of the bio page from another Microsoft Researcher, A.J. Brush, regarding a paper that will be published in September 2010:

"User Experiences with Activity-Based Navigation on Mobile Devices A.J. Bernheim Brush, Amy Karlson, James Scott and Menlo team members, To appear in Mobile HCI 2010"

Based on these references, it looks like Menlo definitely has something to do with Microsoft's future strategy in the mobile space. But exactly why the company may be looking into replacing the CE core -- which is at the heart of many third-party devices, as well as Microsoft products including Windows Mobile, Windows Phone OS 7.0 and the Zune operating system -- is still not 100 percent clear.

"(Windows) CE is actually not their problem and has never been the problem," said one of my doubting sources. "They are investing in Silverlight as the UI and runtime for third party applications and not in the Win32CE API. They want developers to use that framework instead of the native code framework."

When I described to Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry about what I'd heard so far about Menlo, he called the concept a potential "frankenOS." He noted that Apple has begun to redefine the concept of the tablet OS (with the iPad), convincing customers and industry watchers that the best platform to power these kinds of devices isn't a traditional client OS like Windows. Cherry said he was doubtful Microsoft would need to go to all the trouble of replacing CE with NT.

Instead, Cherry suggested two alternative courses of action:

"Microsoft could follow Apple’s lead and build a similar tablet on CE or Windows Phone 7, and have developers create CE and Web based applications for it....Mostly, it would be a rival to the iPad with similar battery life attributes.  Microsoft could even add some USB ports just to differentiate the connectability.  They could also open the carrier access.

"Second, Microsoft could build a tablet on Windows 7 Standard Embedded, and really be ruthless in removing Windows 7 components that do not make sense in the 'new' tablet scenarios. I have not seen any attempt to use what they have to create a truly “designed for tablet” version of OS (key here is instead of adding tablet extensions you remove non-tablet components of the base OS)."

Here's my thinking: If Microsoft replaced the CE kernel with an NT one, Microsoft might have a more compelling "write once/run anywhere story." What if you could make some relatively minor tweaks to your existing Windows client app to get them to run on a Menlo-based Windows Phone or Menlo-based tablet/slate? (It would be the reverse of what Apple is doing, by enabling developers to move their iPhone apps to the iPad with relatively little work.)

Because Microsoft has a far bigger pool of Windows apps than Windows Mobile/Windows Phone apps, it would make sense for the Redmondians to be trying to find a way to enable that base of business/consumer apps to run on Windows-centric phones and tablets.

I'm also wondering whether Menlo may be related to Microsoft's rumored work to port Windows to the ARM platform. There was a project inside Microsoft codenamed "LongARM," my sources have said, via which Microsoft was working on porting Windows Vista to ARM. So far, that port has not materialized. Windows CE runs fine on ARM. If Menlo means Microsoft can swap out CE for NT, would it mean that NT-based operating systems -- like Windows -- could run everywhere CE did?

Menlo, like "Newport," a Microsoft Research app for mobile collaboration, seems to be part of Microsoft's grander strategy of making three-screen-and-a-cloud computing simpler and more ubiquitous. If Menlo really is about enabling mobile devices to run the same "core" as Windows itself, I'd think the PC-phone synchronization part of the three-screens strategy would get a lot easier.

In case you haven't gathered by now, Microsoft Research is not commenting about Menlo. I'm figuring my chances of someone leaving a Winpad running Menlo on a barstool at my local watering hole to be slim to none. (And even if someone did, I don't have a budget to pay a tipster a finder's fee for it.) Given Boy Genuis' recent estimate that 70 percent of tips these days are plants/intentional leaks -- a number I find totally believable -- I decided I'd beat the leakers to the punch.

Can anyone help figure out the Microsoft Menlo mystery? Feel free to chime in below with guesses (educated and otherwise). Or if you'd rather comment privately (and confidentially), email me using the link at the bottom of this site.

Topics: Windows, CXO, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Tablets

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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77 comments
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  • my guess

    microsoft is totally clueless about their mobile strategy, randomly throws
    things at a wall and hopes that some of it will stick (winmo 6.x, wp7,
    kin). and even their usual vaporware freeze the market until we have time
    to copy apple's strategy didn't work out this time (courier). let alone that
    one of their biggest "partners" (hp) is rumored to abandon them in the
    slate space altogether. wow, just wow. what a mess. but don't worry,
    mary "found" some exciting new vaporware projects, microsoft is
    "working" on.

    ok, ok, enough of the quotation marks, already.
    hail to the redmondians!
    banned from zdnet again and again
    • Since you always find wrong with Microsoft and bash them,

      it is waste to argue with you, but i can give you a link and you could find
      more interesting things going at Microsoft. Lurk
      http://research.microsoft.com and I am sure it will open your eyes one
      day if not today. Enjoy rest of your day.
      --Ram--
      Ram U
      • Except that now is not the time to be talking research, competitors are

        already to market and eating Microsoft's lunch.
        DonnieBoy
        • ...

          Your God Eric copied many things from Apple and Microsoft. You are
          right 100, and thanks for easily accepting that fact.
          --Ram--
          Ram U
      • RE: Could 'Menlo' signal a change in Microsoft's mobile strategy?

        @Rama.NET It sounds like you sir, are drinking the Redmond Koolaid. I can't even find a dedicated Mobile Computing research group at that site. They "talk" about "mobile computing" in few research groups, but none of them focus on it solely. They even have a "health and well being" research group. Ridiculous. They openly admit that the computing world is heading in a direction where mobile devices will be THE personal computer... but it's like they're asleep at the wheel or something. Just as well by me. I haven't liked a mobile product from Microsoft in a long, long time. Apple's iPhones and iPod Touches (and now iPads) have been around for a few years, and Microsoft doesn't even look like they're playing catch-up. In fact, IT DOESN'T EVEN LOOK LIKE THEY'RE PLAYING AT ALL.
        iamnoskcaj
      • RE: Could 'Menlo' signal a change in Microsoft's mobile strategy?

        @Rama.NET It sounds like you sir <a href="http://www.trsohbet.com">sohbet</a>, are drinking the Redmond <a href="http://www.trsohbet.com">Chat</a> Koolaid. I can't even find a dedicated Mobile Computing <a href="http://www.trsohbet.com/portal/">portal</a> research group at that site. They "talk" about "mobile computing" in few research <a href="http://video.trsohbet.com">izlesene</a> groups, but none of them focus on it solely. They even have a "health and well being" research <a href="http://www.forumuz.net/">forum</a> group. Ridiculous. They openly admit that the computing world is heading in a direction where mobile <a href="http://www.trsohbet.com">chat sohbet</a> devices will be THE personal <a href="http://www.trsohbet.com">sohbet odalari</a> computer... but it's like they're asleep at the wheel or something. Just as well by me. I haven't liked a mobile product from Microsoft in a long, long time. Apple's iPhones and iPod Touches (and now iPads) have been around for a few years, and Microsoft doesn't even look like they're playing catch-up. In fact, IT DOESN'T EVEN LOOK LIKE THEY'RE PLAYING AT ALL.
        cstrathmore
    • what a brainless comment

      They didn't say, but you at least need to finish high school before write something in here.
      jk_10
      • Come on, he was right on that MS has failed miserably on cell phone and

        mobile platforms in general. Where I might
        disagree with him is that throwing things at the
        wall to see what sticks is an important part of
        innovation, Microsoft should have been doing
        that a lot earlier.
        DonnieBoy
        • Do you really know what you are talking?

          Take a look at http://research.microsoft.com and check how many of
          them are in production right now. Research is not the one that your God
          Eric Schmidt and co doing.
          --Ram--
          Ram U
    • Or possibly you're totally clueless about their mobile strategy?

      I mean, isn't that a possibility? That they know whet they're doing and you don't, which may be causing you some confusion on what's happening?
      John Zern
      • Come on, it is obvious that MS dropped the ball, letting Apple be the

        leader with first iPhone, and now iPad. Windows
        Mobile is a disaster, and desperately pasting a
        music player interface onto cell phones at the
        last minute, may be a disaster as well. MS has
        no viable tablet strategy as well.
        DonnieBoy
        • I don't think anyone would disagree with your subject line ...

          ... as MS clearly DID drop the ball with their mobile strategy a couple of years back.

          HOWEVER, don't assume that MS has no strategy for X. Just because they haven't yet told you what their strategy is doesn't mean one doesn't exist.

          I've worked in and with Microsoft for MANY years. One thing I've learned is that Microsoft is NEVER clueless. They may not nail every execution and they may fumble the ball occasionally, but they sure as heck are not sitting with their thumbs up their asses.
          de-void-21165590650301806002836337787023
          • Well, MS does have a pile of cash. Now if they can innovate and not force

            the mobile units to be controlled by the Windows
            and Office groups.
            DonnieBoy
          • You are totally clueless.

            How do you know that their mobile units are controlled by Windows and
            Office Units? I guess whoever fed you that information are also clueless
            totally. Why should a corp should reveal its strategy to outsiders? Does
            your God Eric Schmidt doing that in public about the strategies of
            Google. Get real.
            --Ram--
            Ram U
      • possible

        it is possible of course, but after all these years of total and utter
        cluelessness on microsoft's part in the mobile arena do you really believe
        they know what they are doing?
        banned from zdnet again and again
        • Very good point!!

          NT.
          DonnieBoy
          • Not like the village idiots at Google, right?

            Hey did you hear that since they can't get offline to work with Apps, they quietlly posted a tiny paragraph saying they won't be supportuing [i]that[/i] now.

            Google Gears, Offline Docs, and no realmention of Chrome OS.

            Wow, Google's as clueless as they come, but then what can you expect from the village idiots! ;)
            John Zern
          • Nice try to change the subject and insult. Back on topic, can you argue

            that MS does not have huge problems in the
            smartphone market given that they had years in
            the market and two newcomers are stealing all
            their glory.
            DonnieBoy
          • "Stealing their glorly"?

            I don't see the issue, but I don't view the world thru Google colored glasses, either.

            You keep talking about the cell phone market like it was as large as 5 years ago as it was today.

            If 2% of the population had a smartphone in 2005, and today 10% carry smartphones, wouldn't that indicate that MS' sold more phone OS then they did 5 years ago?

            Because of the introduction of Android, and a slew of smartphones (some, like the Nexus One haven't sold anywhere close to be considered successful or relavant) doesn't mean that MS isn't developing something of their own. Google waited years before releasing Android, after waiting to see how Apple did.

            MS on the otherhand had one more chalange the others didn't: A wholly redesined desktop/laptop/netbook OS, so it makes sense that the would need to wait for that to finalize before moving onto the next phase: Phone OS. WM6 is still selling, but it's getting old, it's time it catches up to Windows 7.

            Getting rid of CE and replacing it with something more unified is only logical, so that cross development for all 3 platforms is quick, easy, and painless.
            John Zern
          • What, you are using the Vista / Win7 fiascos to justify Microsoft's

            ineptness in the mobile space????? You are
            saying that the mobile group can not function
            at all while the desktop group is having
            problems????

            The funny line is that Google waited "years" to
            release Android. Google was NOT even in the
            mobile OS business, as they were primarily a
            search company. After buying the Android
            business, it did not take them long at all to
            release the first version, and, everybody
            agrees, it is about 100x better than Windows
            mobile which has been around for DECADES.
            DonnieBoy