Thursday, 6 January 2011

The future of computing?

The big tech news today is that Microsoft have announced that the next version of their operating system, Windows 8, will run on ARM as well as Intel chips. This is the first time for years that any of the main versions of Windows will be made available for non-Intel chips.

This is a big thing. Over the last couple of years both Apple and Google have been working to reduce the gap between mobile phones on one hand and fully-fledged desktop computers on the other. Smartphones, netbooks, tablets and laptops are all part of this process. Apple and especially Google hope that this convergence will give them a toehold into Microsoft's market; Microsoft are concerned that the market for traditional computers is going to reduce.

Microsoft's problem is that the majority of these new devices are battery powered, and Intel chips traditionally have very poor power consumption. Instead, manufacturers are using chips designed by Cambridge company ARM.

ARM is very different beast from Intel, and was a pioneer fabless semiconductor company. Whilst Intel design and manufacture their own chips, ARM design chips and associated components, and license these designs to other manufacturers. Therefore relatively small companies can take ARM designs and modify them for their own purposes, for instance by adding USB controllers or network interfaces. This means that one chip can provide almost an entire system, called a System-on-Chip (SoC), reducing cost and power consumption in comparison to an Intel design.

It is therefore newsworthy that in a demo at the industry show CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed an ARM SoC-powered computer running an early version of Windows 8 and Microsoft Word.

It is quite impressive that Windows - traditionally seen as being so tied to Intel that the term 'Wintel' was coined for the combination - had been made to work on a radically different platform so quickly. He also demonstrated printing a document, something that Apple does not support on many of its products. It indicates that the longstanding rumours that Microsoft have been building - if not selling - Windows on other systems are correct (doing this can make testing much easier).

There are dangers for Microsoft. As I have said before, Apple have a much easier job with their software due to the fact that they control the hardware. In contrast, Microsoft will be increasing the amount and types of hardware that they support. I foresee that Microsoft will be working exceptionally closely with the chip manufacturers to help get Windows working with their SoCs.

Then there is the problem that Windows has traditionally been a very 'heavy' operating system; it is fully-featured, but that means it consumes a great deal of resources such as RAM and processor power. Microsoft will have to look at ways of reducing this footprint by enabling parts to be cut out. For instance a tablet computer may have no need for code relating to a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft have been working towards this and other footprint problems for some time; witness the way that Windows 7 boots and shuts down much faster than XP.

The vast majority of third-party software will need altering to work on an ARM-based system, and it is questionable whether companies such as Adobe, Sage and others will want to support other platforms. Yet such a move may open many more markets for their products. It will be a difficult decision for some of them to make. Again, Microsoft has a brilliant development platform that may make altering the software relatively painless.

Another problem is the interface. Windows is based around a keyboard and mouse combination; Apple have done a superb job in inventing other interfaces. The handwriting-based Newton did not sell well in the 1990s, but the touch-based interface used by the iPhone and iPad is superb. Microsoft will have an interesting job creating an interface system that will work on multiple paradigms.

They have targeted such markets before; for instance nearly ten years ago I worked on a set-top box that ran on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system (abbreviated by all the engineers to the apt name WinCE). WinCE and their other cut-down operating systems have never really taken off as they are very different beasts from Microsoft's desktop operating systems.

Despite these problems, I think Microsoft may well succeed. Windows, although hated by many enthusiasts, is an extremely good software platform, and Microsoft Office is unrivalled. Business in particular might like small platform devices running exactly the same industry-standard software as their desktops. That is something that Apple, Google or Linux cannot currently offer.

We are living in interesting times.

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