Microsoft's Windows future: One core, many SKUs

Microsoft's Windows future: One core, many SKUs

Summary: Is Windows RT dead? Is the desktop going away ? What's 'Threshold' got to do with it? Here's my latest attempt to try to make sense of where Microsoft's Windows roadmap will lead in the next couple years and beyond.


Recent remarks by a Microsoft exec who noted there won't be three different Windows variants in the future have set off a storm of speculation  -- just about all of which is dead wrong.


Microsoft Executive Vice President Julie Larson-Green recently told attendees of a UBS technology conference that Microsoft was not going to have three different Windows SKUs (Windows Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8.x). She didn't say how many Microsoft ultimately plans to have, but some believe the answer is one, given Microsoft's "One Microsoft" mission and creation this year of a unified operating-system engineering team.

I've seen folks claiming Larson-Green's comments mean Windows RT is dead. I've seen others claiming Larson-Green's remarks mean the Windows Desktop is dead. I've seen another group claiming she was conveying that the Windows Phone OS is dead.

Larson-Green didn't actually say any of those things. (You can read her exact words in this transcript.)

One core, many SKUs

So what did Larson-Green's remarks mean? In my view it's not exactly "One Windows," as my ZDNet collealgue Simon Bisson recently described it. In reality, it's a bit more nuanced. It's more like "One core and many SKUs" -- the lot of which Microsoft plans to call "Windows."

Microsoft has been on a journey toward this new approach for a couple of years now. At the start of this year, Microsoft brass were talking publicly about the ability to "write once, run on any Windows."

The Windows NT core is now the heart of Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, Windows RT and the Xbox One operating systems. These platforms share some (but not all) application programming interfaces and developer tools. (I've heard talk that only about a third of the Windows APIs are currently shared between Windows RT, Microsoft's ARM version of Windows, and Windows Phone OS which runs on ARM.)

As Microsoft completes its "Blue" wave of deliverables with the Windows Phone 8.1 "Blue" release in the spring of 2014, the company will inch a step closer toward enabling more Windows APIs on Windows Phone. A complementary (and complimentary) update to Windows 8.1 will help with this on the Windows side.)

Then, with "Threshold," the next Windows wave following Blue, which starts rolling in around Spring of 2015, Microsoft will enlarge the footprint of the common Windows core shared by phone, tablets, PCs and entertainment console even further. The goal is to make sure all the flavors of Windows share more in terms of foundational infrastructure, i.e. the same file system, driver model, memory manager, application platform, app store and services.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft, in the not-too-distant future -- possibly even before Spring 2015 -- start calling all its variants of Windows just plain old "Windows" (even though they won't exactly identical).

Windows SKUs, or versions, will continue to differ based on platform: Phone, phablet, mini tablet, tablets, laptop, desktop PC, console. Some of these form factors will run a single "Windows" SKU; others will offer customers a choice of two (such as Home and Pro in the case of PCs, for example). The difference will be in the UI/UX (user interface and user experience). In other words, the Windows that runs on your phone won't be the same Windows from a look, feel and/or use perspective, that runs on your Xbox One, or even your ARM-based tablet.

There are some obvious questions here: What about apps and backwards compatibility? The goal, no doubt, is to make sure there's a support story for the existing Windows Phone and Windows Store apps that users already have purchased and downloaded. Exactly how and if this will happen, I'm not sure. The hope seems to be that developers will be able to create the bulk of "modern"/Metro-Style/Windows Store apps once and then target particular types of devices, whether they be phones, mini tablets or All in Ones.

Another question: What about the desktop environment that allows users to run existing Win32 apps? When does it go away, if ever? Talking to my contacts, I believe the answer is not anytime soon. A big part of the reason: Microsoft wants and needs Windows XP and Windows 7 users to be willing to move to Windows 8. That means the desktop, desktop/laptop PCs and mouse/keyboard support aren't going anywhere for the forseeable future.

How will Microsoft differentiate Windows SKUs that include the desktop environment and support legacy Win32 apps from those that don't? That's the million-dollar branding question. Windows RT was not the answer, as Larson-Green herself recently conceded. 

Bottom line: This transition won't be complete next year. Or even the year after. And the end result will likely be neither as simple as a single Windows SKU, nor as complex as 10 largely different flavors of Windows.

Topics: Mobile OS, Microsoft, Smartphones, Tablets, PCs, Windows 8, Windows Phone


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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  • stop copying apple

    this windows 8 "thing" seems to me to be mostly about copying apple's i* mindset. But in truth it is a step backwards in evolution from the desktop based metaphor. I think Microsoft should be spending their time *innovating* on the desktop rather than removing years of positives just so they can build an OS with applications as limiting as the iPad versions. I mean why would Microsoft remove windows from windows. why?!? It seems the execs went to them and said "build something like apple and make it better" instead of "build me a reimagined windows desktop that incorporates touch properly"
    • Dont they already have a great desktop?

      and with Windows 8, File Explorer got even better.
      With more and more users adopting form factors that include touch screen and mobile do you seriously suggest they abandon all efforts to play in what will soon be the biggest arena?
      As MJF pointed out.... The desktop is not going anywhere any time soon.
      • Windows 8, File Explorer?

        There are a few serious uncorrected bugs in the Win8/8.1 file explorer that did not exist in earlier versions of WinXP & Win7.
        • Result is the same: Extinct Apps

          At the moment it is a mess.

          Windows Phone 8 apps aren't compatible with Windows RT apps, which aren't compatible with desktop apps.

          So, at least one of these app ecosystems must die.

          Microsoft is not going to kill Windows 8 on the desktop, even though they want to make it look like a phone. That means they'll kill the app ecosystem of either Windows Phone or Windows RT (even if the NT core continues).

          But Microsoft keeps doing this over and over again. People who bought Windows Mobile in its dying days got burned when the apps became incompatible with the next version of phone. Then it happened again with Windows Phone 7, which had its app ecosystem abandoned. Windows Phone 8 apps to be abandoned next, like all the other Microsoft phone platforms before it?
          • Doesn't have to happen that way

            They can give both sides the APIs the other side has and just depreciate the APIs that they want to get away from. so that apps from either can work on the other.
          • Linux is already on all platforms.

            Linux is source compatible on all architectures. Once a C compiles is available for a new CPU, then Linux can be compiled and is on that architecture. Microsoft compatible at the API level only. API compatibility is like a general giving an order and that order is carried out. The general may give the order to 5 different commanders in different countries. These orders will be carried out differently. Same senerio with the Linux model is all orders are carried out using the exact same steps. (Lines of code). The individual steps are like lines of C code and an order is like an API call. Big difference. That does mean that Microsoft will still have to do more work for each new processor than Linux does. That will put Microsoft at a disadvantage.
            Tim Jordan
          • Linux the KERNEL, not Linux the OS

            Of course Linux the kernel, a tiny part of the OS and APIs, is available pretty much everywhere. But the subsystems, software, and APIs, however are a massively, massively fragmented mess. So it's freaking useless.

            But the Windows NT kernel already runs on all Microsoft devices, too. So why would they switch from something they can control to something only ruler-for-life Linux Torvalds can control?

            Do you realize the Windows NT kernel has better security nowadays than the Linux kernel, and it can be ported easily to any processor/device Microsoft wants? The amount of effort is easy.

            Do you also realize the Windows NT kernel has better device support?

            "Once a C compiles is available for a new CPU, then Linux can be compiled and is on that architecture."

            And actually works. Like magic, right? :)
          • You are joking right?


            Here just a short list of your "better and more secured kernel" that is the worst of the lot
            Complete joke of a comment
          • You forgot this tag...

            The killer argument is in here Bladeforce, where we see NT's being ported to just a few processors while Linux is available on almost all...

          • christoban.... you have your concepts completely upside down...

            In Linux, every code is open source so you can compile it to any architecture with minimal change.

            Current projects like, Gnome, KDE, etc. have processor neutral source code and compile binaries for all sorts of devices including Raspberry PI, Intel x86, x64, z/390, OS/400, Alpha, PowerPC, etc.

            Windows on the other hand is only portable at a Kernel level.

            All other subsystems haven't been ported in ages. So only DirectX has ARM ports ActiveX and essential parts like ODBC and OleDb have minor ports or none at all.

            Last but not least, a key part of the Windows infrastructure, the .NET framework that wasn't available for Itanium until 2012, so ARM is completely out of the question. That's the reason we still don't have WinForms on Windows RT and probably never will.

            First do the research and then speak.


            Submitted by Matthew Gillespie on Tue, 09/20/2011

            "The .NET Framework for 64-bit Intel® architecture, currently in a pre-release version, will provide 64-bit support for Intel Itanium-based computers"
          • The best example of this is...

            ...the Dell Venue 8 Android tablet that run on Intel and the full Google Play store is available.

            On the other hand, not the full Windows Store is available on Windows RT.

            Talk about fragmentation, here you got it.
          • It's not that easy...

            Windows RT is based on COM+ and Windows Phone 8 is a clean cut coding, mostly DirectX.

            If you check the tutorials created for Metro, you see four distinct coding styles which can't be merged at all.


            1) XAML with Visual Basic
            2) XAML with C#
            3) XAML with C++
            4) DirectX with C++ WinRT
            5) DirectX with C++ WP8
            6) JavaScript, HTML, and CSS
            7) XNA

            Options 1, 4 and 6 are for WinRT exclusively.

            Option 4 and 5 are the replacements for 7, but are coded differently amongst platforms

            If you wanted to merge everything, you would have to have the 7 environments on the three platforms, which would be worst than todays.

            So as you can see, they have their work cut out for them.
          • desktop

            No they will kill the "legacy" desktop .. but microsoft never kill anything. Right now the desktop is like win98 when NT 4 was released. It will fade over time.

            The desktop is bad for a number of reasons which have nothing to do with the fact it has GUI windows. Its bad because there are many techologies NET DDE , OLE , ActiveX etc etc that need to die. WinRT is orders of magnitude harder to exploit from a security point of view mainly due to its capability base.

            What they will do is add is better side by side views. You may even get windows back but TBH most people run full screen or side by side panels anyway.
          • Exactly

            as WinRT and the new UI gain in functionality, the traditional desktop will become less and less important, eventually becoming an 'app' under new Windows, to run old legacy software, much like XP Mode in Windows 7.

            The legacy baggage that Windows has to carry around makes it vulnerable to more attacks and makes it bloated and unwieldy. If they can transition to a new base, which is more secure and sandbox the old desktop, it could mean a bright future.
          • But Microsoft botched mobile

            Microsoft's Windows Phones and its Windows tablets are not selling.

            In fact, they are a sales disaster.

            So, how long can these loss-makers get propped up? Both could face the axe. CEO Ballmer won't do it. But the new Microsoft CEO that replaces him probably will.

            In which case, the only OS left will be the old desktop one, just how it was when Microsoft started.
          • Wrong

            Windows Phone is growing very, very rapidly. It has exceeded the iPhone in a few markets already. At this rate, it will be in second place in two years.
          • Christoban....

            ...Nirvana and Shangrila don't count as markets as they don't exist.

            It is growing too rapidly, since when you sell 5 million and then sell 10 million, you have a 50% increase. Alas when you sell a 100 million and then you sell 105 million you only get a modest 5% increase and both are the same unit increases.
          • Sales math

            If your sales increase from 5 million to 10 million, you have a 100% increase. Going from 10M to 5M is a 50% decrease.
            Bob Matteson
          • Windows phone sales

            Windows phones are doing very well ..just not in the US and UK . At current trends they will be go pass iphone next year. In fact its the up and comer.


            Windows phones do not make a loss but profit is low , that is to be expected and is far better than say when Xbox entered the market.
          • So you're quoting a fanboy site?

            How about a few facts: Apple sold 9 million iPhone 5s (and 5c) on launch weekend. There were 7.4 million WP 8 phones shipped for the entire quarter. Apple sold (to the end user) more phones in three days, than Microsoft shipped (to the retail chain), in an entire quarter.
            I hate trolls also