How Windows 8 will take on Chrome and Android

Windows chief Steve Sinofsky talks about whether the rise of netbooks and lighter-weight operating systems is having any impact on Microsoft's strategy
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Windows 7 is the best-selling version of the operating system ever, according to Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

The software maker has sold more than 60 million licences for it, and the demand helped lift Microsoft's second-quarter results. That may not be down to consumers alone — Forrester Research figures indicate that 66 percent of companies plan to upgrade to Windows 7.

The question is, what should Microsoft should do next with Windows? There are still plenty of challenges for the operating system, with Google's cloud-focused Chrome OS on the horizon, and the first Android-powered smartbooks expected to arrive soon. In addition, the next generation of web technologies will give browser applications a lot more power.

ZDNet UK asked Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows division, how Windows 8 will compete, given the cloud and the growing enthusiasm for lightweight smartphone operating systems on netbooks.

Sinofsky has been credited with turning Windows development around after Vista, and with instituting a new, more rigorous engineering process at Microsoft. We asked him where he thinks Windows will be going in 2010 and beyond.

Q: Will the success of Windows 7 be a problem for Windows 8? How do you make sure you do something that moves the state of the art forward?
A: There's no answer to that. That's what we do, and that's the work we're going to do. It's the balance between solving problems and innovation.

There are rumours of a very rigid masterplan for Windows 8, with no more unsponsored projects allowed and everything dictated from the top.
That wouldn't be how I would work. In fact, nothing could be less... The very last thing great product development needs is one person saying how it should be. If you think about the complexity of our industry, there isn't one person who could do all of this.

Are Android and Chrome OS making you change the way you think about what an operating system is? What makes sense in the age of the cloud, versus the full-powered operating system that's the traditional Windows approach?
There's no SD [card] slot in the cloud. I was looking at the cloud, and there's no print button on the cloud. There's a lot of things missing.

Think about the analogy I've made before where Windows is the movie theatre, and it's the software that is the movies. The movie theatre has a set of things it has to do. No matter what technology is used to build movies, and no matter what the movies do, you still need to sit down and have air-conditioning and snacks.

There's a whole bunch of stuff in your PC, and it's not clear which of those you give up when you switch to the cloud. That's the equivalence: if you want to use a cloud-based app, you still need a keyboard, you still need graphics.

And it turns out those things are all really important for enjoying software. When you think about how...

...PC hardware keeps getting better, why would you want to give things up, if software keeps getting better?

This is what happened in movie theatres — once digital projection started, the movies theatres started saying: "Actually, we can make the seats better." We'll see the same with software taking advantage of new PC hardware.

But the direction of HTML 5 seems to be towards giving the browser and web apps better access to PC hardware, like the GPS. Does that make a difference?
There is very little difference between what happens in a browser and what happens on the rest of your PC, if it's a hardware peripheral. All you're talking about is: can you get to it from a browser?

What about privacy issues with the next generation of browsers, where PC hardware will be accessible from the web?
Take access to sensors. Up until about a year ago, everybody said: "See! This is why using a browser is great. Because all this stuff goes on on your PC, and the browser is an island and doesn't know or have any ability to access that sensor, so you're totally protected." That was an asset.

Now everybody is saying: "But we actually want your browser to know about your location, so now we need an API or a plugin model or an extension to a standard, so the browser can get to it."

But wait a minute — just before that, you were telling me: "This is so cool. You can have a GPS in your laptop, and the browser can respect your privacy because it doesn't know." Now you're saying the browser should know, but you need to finish the privacy part. You can't just say: "Net positive, everybody wins."

So I think of it as a continuum. There's no difference with the browser knowing something about hardware — whether it can it read and write files, or get to your memory, or use any peripherals. It's the responsibility of the whole set of software to let you know.

In Windows, the sensor API warns you that something is using the GPS. If [Internet Explorer] uses the GPS, we'll use that API, and there is no way around it. The API always warns you. That's the approach that we take.

That said, time will tell. Cultures and different ways and different regions of the world will react differently to what hardware peripherals do and when you get notified of what.

There's a lot of interest in smaller devices and tablets. Do you want to bring Windows to smaller devices in a lighter-weight version?
There are many things mixed in there. Right now, the thing that's happening on x86 is our ability to go from a ridiculously mega supercomputer game machine to a laptop that has the same specs to a machine with a five-inch screen that's [touch-sensitive].

We have literally every size of PC: five-inch, seven-inch, eight-inch, 10-inch, 11-inch, 12-inch, 15-inch, 19-inch...

At some point you run out of dimensions; there are only so many ways to take a really big sheet of LCD glass and cut it. We could have a triangle PC and use the left-over corner!

But in terms of a lightweight operating system? Android claims it has advantages, like longer battery life.
The thing to keep in mind with battery life is that the number-one consumer of battery life, right now, is the screen. If you take a phone and put it underneath a really big screen, the battery life drops geometrically, because that's how screens work. That's a really big blocker today.

Even if you do everything in solid state and have the lowest-power-consumption chip, you're still lighting up a lot of light bulbs.

That's the first thing. So basically, if we go to a 10-inch screen, we geometrically increase our power consumption just for the screen.

Of course, once you got to a 10-inch screen, you need more memory to drive the screen, and so all these little things start to add up.

Plus, if you're going to use it all day... well, you don't use your phone all day. You have to compare the talk time on your phone, not the standby time.

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