Windows is not the desktop and why Windows RT isn't dead

Windows is not the desktop and why Windows RT isn't dead

Summary: Microsoft's One Windows strategy is only causing confusion because we seem to have forgotten what an operating system is.


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella laid out very clearly on the Microsoft earnings call what the strategy is for Windows, which is to "consolidate overlapping efforts. This means one OS that covers all screen sizes." 

He even repeated it: "One, single converged operating system for screens of all sizes."

That's one OS, built by one OS team, for multiple different systems. What's 'one' about that?

Nadella talked of one team with a layered architecture which allows it "to scale the UI across all screen sizes. It allows us to create this notion of universal Windows apps and bring coherence there."

But it's only clear if you're clear on what an operating system is; it's not just the kernel and it’s certainly not just the desktop, and it doesn't run on only one kind of processor.

One Windows isn't just the 'three screens and a cloud' strategy of different devices that might share interface elements or let you use the same account, or have a little bit of Windows inside. That's old Microsoft, many-Windows Microsoft. 

At one point, Azure was a fork of Windows with a very different hypervisor; now it's the same OS as Windows Server, with the same Hyper-V hypervisor. But you couldn't take the Azure OS code, put it on a single Xeon server and do anything useful with it because it's designed to do something specific — run a cloud service.

Windows Phone 8 uses the NT kernel, but it isn't the same OS as Windows 8; not only is the user experience very different, but it has different runtimes and (unless you're Microsoft porting across Internet Explorer), you can't build an application that runs on both. Windows Phone 8.1 is closer; it has the WinRT runtime and the concept of universal apps, with the Windows Phone Store and Windows Store being the same underneath. More than 90 percent of the API's are shared between Windows 8.1 Update and Windows Phone 8.1.

This what executive vice president of the Operating Systems group Terry Myerson talked about last December and it's the same One vision of Windows that's been the plan since the One Microsoft re-org. "We want to have one platform that powers all of our devices," Myerson said at the Credit Suisse technology conference, "so that developers can really target the aggregate scale of Microsoft with their investments."

What does that give you? "Enabling developers to write a game which can run on both Xbox and Windows is a very interesting opportunity. Enabling productivity apps that run in the workplace, but also on the phone and tablet."

But even with all the APIs the same, on an OS powered on all those devices by the same kernel, you don't get or want the same thing everywhere, he pointed out.

"Each of our device form factors does require a unique tailored experience, I think, to really delight the customer. So Xbox has got this magical experience on a four-foot screen that I wouldn't want in my pocket on a four-inch screen, and likewise I wouldn't want to scale up Windows Phone to a four-foot screen. So tailoring the experiences to each form factor is another key part of our investment pieces."

The recent job advert for developers in the XAML team building the UI framework for the "one Microsoft OS" talked about "enabling developers to create UI that works well across all of our devices: phones, tablets, PCs and the Xbox".

So, it's one OS on different devices with different experiences. And it doesn't mean Windows RT is going away. For one thing, RT is the basis of Windows Phone now; it's the NT kernel running on ARM with the WinRT runtime. WinRT is how universal apps get on the Windows Store on x86 devices and on Xbox.

For another there's a little phrase in Nadella's comment about the breadth of what Microsoft does that refers to Windows RT and Surface; when he says "from silicon tape out" he's talking about Microsoft making its own ARM chips, which it does for Surface 2.

Surface Mini didn't ship, not because Microsoft doesn't want to keep Windows RT going but because it didn't do anything special enough without the touch version of Office. For Nadella, Microsoft's own hardware is there to show off Microsoft software and services: "All devices will be created with the explicit purpose to light up our digital work and life experiences."

Microsoft certainly isn't dropping ARM for x86; Windows Phone is ARM and Windows RT on Surface is ARM.

Yes, there are going to be a lot of Intel-based tablets, especially small tablets on the cheaper hardware spec that get the free version of Windows. The OEMs know how to knock those out cheaply and they can take advantage of the new 'brokered Windows runtime components' in Windows 8.1.

That's the way a WinRT app on an x86 device can also run Windows desktop code in the background, like all those .NET applications businesses have built over the years. The user sees a WinRT touch app, but the old code is still running. That only works for apps a business sideloads but it could make a desktop-less version of Windows Threshold useful for a lot of businesses.

Because just as the Windows NT kernel that powers the Windows OS on all these devices isn't the operating system, neither is the desktop. The desktop is a shell called EXPLORER.EXE. Try killing the process on Windows; your applications carry on running, but the taskbar and the file explorer and other interface components disappear — then reappear as the operating system restarts the shell, assuming you're on any modern version of Windows. (If not, use Ctrl-Shift-Esc to open Task Manager and File, Run new task to get it all back.) Every operating system has a shell, but the shell is not the operating system.

The most minimal version of the Windows operating system would be the core components known as MinWin; that's the kernel, the basic system services and the TCP/IP stack, with virtualisation that redirects applications calling the tangled old DLLs that used to implement Windows APIs to the new logical DLLs that to the same thing in a tidier way that's easier to slice apart when you need to.

The Windows operating system really is the complete platform that includes all the components and APIs for all the different systems — from phone to PC to tablet to Xbox, to Internet of Things board with sensors, to sewing machines and industrial controllers that assemble Macs.

The Operating Systems Group at Microsoft is busy turning the multiple build systems they had for Windows a and Xbox and Windows Phone into one build system that will take that one Windows and spit out the right build for each platform, screen size and experience.

It's one Windows underneath, but the right Windows for whatever device you're using. Really, it's no more confusing than saying that both cloud and mobile have to be top priority because they're aspects of the same change in thinking.

Further reading

Topics: Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Microsoft Surface, Windows 8

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Your overthinking this

    According to Mary Jo Foley the only literal thing he meant was "built by one OS team". The other terms are figurative meaning that Windows will have same experience across different devices. For example, if you build a Win 9 app it should run on all systems.
    Sean Foley
    • I'm sure that one app does not happen either! different devices

      have different power horses, different screens, different custormers, use cases etc etc. The best thing you can get from one app everywhere is probably that tiled design which failing everywhere for MS, from desktops to even smartphones!
      • One

        You get one app with different target packages. The runtime is the same on all platforms, the system libraries are the same.

        You just need conditionals for unique hardware elements, and UI layouts for different screen sizes, then roll out to the resulting app to all platforms.

        Just like Android runs on various ARM processors and Intel, the majority of the code remains the same for the developer, unless they go outside the prescribed sandbox and "hit the metal", in which case, they have to re-write that part of the code for each hardware platform.
        • One User

          I think all are missing the One User Core aspect. This is not software but user training. It lets you take a set of skills you learn on one app and use them across other apps and screen sizes. This is part of what makes Office so efficient to use. I have kind of wondered if Microsoft will hijack the Android user interface in time.
      • Edit:

        Apple did something similar with its transition from PowerPC to Intel, the apps were universal for a long time, allowing them to run on either architecture without modification.
        • not really fat binary

          fat binary for Apple was more like the 32/64-bit combo programs we had a while back; universal apps are code projects that share code, libraries etc but are downloaded as the specific app for the device, not a fat binary that's broken apart by the installer. different approach.
          • No fat binary

            I wasn't so much thinking about the fat binary, more that using one set of code, you could target different processor architectures.

            How that is implemented - multiple compilations and multiple executables or a single fat binary is a different kettle of fish entirely.
      • Maybe, maybe not.

        Remember when Apple went to "fat" binaries?

        This was a scheme to allow one binary to run under PowerPC and under Intel x86/x64. The respective architecture knew which code to run.

        In fact, dual-architecture hardware was pioneered by IBM during the "bad old" mainframe days.

        There is no reason to assume that the unified Windows RT/Phone won't work in a similar fashion. The device running the application will know which API's to use.
        M Wagner
        • I Find It Somewhat Unfathomable...

          That a person with a purported 34-years in the tech industry would actually buy into the concept of Windows RT.

          After all, MS trying to sell genuine tech people Windows RT is like trying to convert Mel Gibson to Judaism!

          You're a braver soul than I, because if I ever bought a Windows RT system, the last thing on earth I would do is tell someone... let alone go online and actually brag about it.
          • Strange...

            For an anonymous individual, I find it odd that you think you have the right to question the question the choice of another person.

            Of course, when you're hiding behind a computer monitor, I'm sure it's easier for you to preach your opinions as facts, right?
          • What an ass

            Good luck getting a job in tech with an attitude like that.

            The Surface 2 is a great 10" tablet, my mom likes hers a lot. Yes there are things that need work, especially in terms of fitting the product to the market. One of the biggest helps is the WP 8.1 release which gives developers one platform to target phone and tablet (and PC!).

            Having a locked-down consumer-friendly OS for thin, light, fanless devices with all day battery life, is a very good thing, and it isn't going anywhere even if the name changes.
          • 34 years

            in 34 years you see technologies come and go - or usually come and hang around, just look think that most big organizations are still running big iron IBM mainframes or mid-range AS/400 hardware alongside all the other "modern" stuff.

            When I started, it was using FORTRAN and DCL on a VAX 11/750 and using DEC Phone, their proprietary instant messaging system, to talk to operators in Houston TX, while I was sitting in West Sussex in England. I also had session switching to switch between different applications. You see, there is nothing new in what we have today. They were even experimenting with 3D graphical plots of oil fields back them and we had a 1200dpi laser plotter. Since 1981 the technology has been refined and made more affordable, but big advances? Not so many.

            The desktop as we know it today way presented to us in 1984, when graphics technology was limited and we only had the mouse to help us navigate it.

            The world has moved on since then, but other than a few refinements the desktop has more or less stood still. It is an acceptable paradigm, but it doesn't make the best use of technology that we have today and going into the future it will have less and less relevance.

            Windows RT is an attempt at trying to work out the next step in the evolution of computing devices, along with iOS and Android.

            Does that mean the desktop is going to disappear tomorrow? No, because iOS, Android and RT can't, currently, provide an adequate replacement for the power user. But for the casual user or the user who now uses a single application full screen - the majority in business - it doesn't provide much change at the moment.

            On the power user side, as I predicted when Windows 8 was in Beta, the WinRT apps will over time gain traditional desktop functionality, allowing them to be windowed - which is what we are seeing with Threshold on the horizon.

            The desktop is slowly fading, but the next evolution of the computer interface is still being ironed out and there isn't anything better, when you are working at a desk. If you are on the move, the modern interface makes much more sense than a desktop paradigm. But if you are at your desk, it isn't so useful in its current form.

            We are in a transition period. As WinRT matures, Windows for ARM will make more sense (Windows RT is going away, melding into a new platform which combines the best of Windows RT and the best of Windows Phone), but they will use a common Kernel and the WinRT infrastructure to provide a common interface, shared with Intel architecture.
          • There are 2 WinRT

            Note that there are two things called WinRT: The API that programmers can program against (aka "Windows Store Apps") and the OS Build that runs on ARM and "only" runs Windows Store apps, without explorer.

            After bein in this business as long as I ave (only 20 years) I can definately see where WinRT has its place and will probably do very well. Not in the current business environment, but in the student and education markets. It offers a powerful alternative to iOS and Android platforms without all of the baggage that a full Windows experience has. Yes, you loose out on backwards compatibility as well, but that is not what the target for these devices is. They just need a better name than WinRT. I would fire the marketing department -- it has been hurting Microsoft more than helping them for a long time. Microsoft products are selling only on their merits, not the marketing.
        • Windows Store doesn't work that way

          Doesn't do the fat binary thing, or anything like it.

          Rather your code is prepped (using something akin to a build server as well as multiple compile targets in Visual Studio), provided you use the WinRT portable class libraries. Each platform gets binaries that are native to it, and not a big bloated pig of a package, like Mac's universal binaries.
      • I'd have the same opinion if I DID NOT know how to code.

        But to each his own.
      • Tiled design failure? success??

        Sorry, ummm the tiled design is what works the best. Its the failed mix none Win8 apps that gives the users a mixed experience that fails. The tiles are not the failure point... matter of fact if you look at the sales and user experiences of those willing to actually use Windows 8+ you might find its becoming addictive.
    • Windows RT...

      Is about as DEAD as Tupac Shakur, L. Ron Hubbard, and Elvis Presley!

      Microsoft has made some horrible products in their day... but make no mistake about it, Windows RT reached an entirely new low, even for MS.

      Let's make an OS that doesn't run any Windows programs, but also has a Desktop. Let's allow it to only run the worst browser in our galaxy... Internet Explorer, because we will prevent ANYONE else from making a competing browser. Let's release it with a watered down version of Office, minus Outlook, and with more bugs than a New York City sewer!

      Let's give it a dated chipset, in order to guarantee it will be slow and sluggish. Then let's give it hardware to make it the heaviest tablet on planet earth. Let's charge extra for a disposable keyboard. Since MS fanboys tend to live alternative lifestyles, we'll make sure to offer lime green and hot pinks keyboard options. And even though it's a computer, we'll give it a kickstand, just in case employees from Google want to ride it to work like a bicycle!

      Let's call it "Windows" so consumers will buy it, thinking it will run their old Windows programs. Maybe they will be too lazy to take it back and we'll get lucky! Or they can use it as a $400 doorstop, either way we win. Let's price Windows RT the same as other tablets and hybrids from our own OEMs that we bully and undercut, even though their tablets are using a faster CPU and running full blown Windows!

      Then let's all pretend to look shocked when it fails, while we're in front of Ballmer at meetings.

      Wow, all this sounds fun... when can we get started?
      • orandy

        It's Friday, can you not save your BS until next week?
      • Gee, for the first time in twenty-years, I left my Windows notebook ...

        ... at home when I went on vacation last summer. Instead, I took my Surface RT. I used it to access my employer's Citrix farm to take care of some work-related chores which just couldn't wait for my return. It did everything I needed it to do.

        As an IT professional (34 years) I found that the Surface RT far exceeded my expectations. As for IE, you might not like it but it is still the #1 most often used web browser out there.
        M Wagner
        • Re: M Wagner

          I've been using my Surface 2 and previously Surface RT in the same manner now for going on 2 years. My laptop never leaves my desk anymore. Surface 2 (RT) is an excellent tablet in my opinion. And the kickstands and keyboards set these tablets apart in a very positive way, not negative, again my opinion. The kickstand is an awesome feature and it hides away perfectly when not in use; there's really no logical reason to complain about a feature that is there if you want to use or hidden away if you don't. Besides, I rarely see anyone sitting down using any sort of tablet without an add-on "kickstand" of some sort, I like the built-in option versus buying an add-on that makes tablet bulky and heavier.