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  (Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC)
From the smartphone to the game console, Microsoft thinks it can make one size fit all

At an investor meeting sponsored by UBS AG (VTX:UBSN), outgoing Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Devices and Services Executive Vice President (EVP) Julie Larson-Green laid out a bold roadmap for unifying all of Microsoft's consumer-facing operating systems into a single chameleon-esque operating system that can blend optimally into any hardware niche by tuning its metadata.

I. Windows Chameleon: Blending Into Every Niche

Ms. Larson-Green -- who is at least briefly being demoted from her post of executive vice president of Devices and Services to make way for incoming former Nokia Oyj. (HEX:NOK1V) CEO Stephen Elop -- told the gathered crowd of investors:

We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We're not going to have three.
Julie Larson-Green

She elaborates on this vision -- which drove the restructuring that outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer set into motion -- remarking:

I think that was the genesis for the restructuring in the company, because we have all the elements. We have talented hardware engineers. We have a great platform for building applications on top of those devices, an application platform that scales from mobile devices to giant large screen devices to your living room. And we have the services that match those things up.

And we're uniquely positioned to bring all those thing together. So they're structuring around one strategy for the company rather than made up of individual business groups with the best of intentions, but their own P&L concerns, we're able to focus the research as a company in a new direction. I think it will help us move faster. Of course, the acquisition of Nokia helps as well to give us the engineering muscle, and the muscle in inventory management and manufacturing to scale quickly.

Technical details of Microsoft's "one vision" were a bit scarce, and some may react with skepticism given Ms. Larson-Green's (at least temporarily) decreased role at Microsoft.  However, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that can be used to confirm that it at least appears Microsoft is on this path.  For example Windows RT and Windows Phone share about 33 percent of their API.

"Windows Blue" (aka Windows Phone 8.1) -- the rumored successor to Windows Phone 8 Update 3 (GDR3) -- is rumored to land sometime next year and attain roughly 77 percent "API unity" between Windows Phone and Windows RT, according to sources cited by Microsoft insider and Windows Supersite blogger Paul Thurrott.  That high amount of overlap may be sufficient to brand all sizes of touch-screen devices "Windows Blue" devices, leaving Visual Studio and its SDKs to sort out the non-overlapping APIs.

Windows Blue
[Image Source: NeoWin]

Sources report that if Windows Blue does blanket tablets and laptops it will likely be more Windows Phone than Windows RT.  Mr. Thurrott writes:

Where GDR3 is widely expected to support 5- to 6-inch screens, 8.1 will supposedly support 7- to 10-inch screens as well. This obviously infringes on Windows RT/8.x tablets, so it's not clear what the thinking is there.

Windows RT's codebase is reportedly more cumbersome and complex than Windows Phone, hence Microsoft engineers are finding internally that it may be wiser to simple "scale up" the mobile OS.

Windows RT
Microsoft may scuttle Windows RT[Image Source: TalkVietnam]

Currently, Windows 8.1 and the operating system aboard the Xbox One appear to have at least 50 percent API unity, as you can use most Windows 8.1 compatible Windows Store apps directly on the Xbox One.  The only incompatibility between the two platforms is that Windows 8.1 PCs can't play Xbox One games, given the specialized gaming graphics hardware required for optimal performance.  But in time that small barrier may fade as well -- the Xbox may simply become a high-end enthusiast PC, marketed as a "game console", but with near-complete software compatibility with Windows.
 
II. Microsoft to Trim, Merge Consumer OS Brands to Just Two by 2015?
 
According to ZDNet Windows-centric columnist Mary Jo Foley by 2015 Microsoft will likely have two operating systems -- one for standard x86 Windows in tablet, hybrid, laptop, desktop, and Xbox One forms -- and the other for ARM-based wearables, phones, phablets, tablets, hybrids, and laptops.
 

Already Microsoft's defacto OS for phablets, Windows Phone will likely be scaled up, allowing Windows RT to be dumped.

In the future these two OS brands are expected to merge into a single OS brand, which covers all products.  Developers will write code based on a unified API, and then see their app made available to all platforms simultaneous (or in the case of performance-sensitive apps such as games, or apps requiring certain features like touch, to all compatible platforms).  This will essentially mean developers will no longer have to worry about developing for ARM vs. x86 devices or smartphones versus tablets (beyond some minor metadata tweaking to account for screen size).

Stephen Elop
Stephen Elop (left) is expected by some to become the next CEO of Microsoft, replacing outgoing CEO Steven Ballmer (right).  That move would likely put Ms. Larson-Green back in her former post. [Image Source: Reuters]

Ms. Larson-Green indicates that Microsoft will stick to its guns with the coloroful first-party Windows 8.x "Surface" line of touch laptop-tablet hybrids, despite poor sales (which notably forced Microsoft to take a $900M USD charge on unsold inventory in Q2 2013).  She argues that the first-party brand is vital as it allows Microsoft to directly find out what the challenges on the hardware side are without having to rely on OEMs.  By the sound of it Nokia Devices will be rebranded as "Surface" phones.  She comments:

Surface has been a fun project, really when we created it we created it to be a stage for Windows 8, to be the representation of the experience that we were trying to create. The combination of powerful productivity when you plug in the keyboard, but also the simplicity of a tablet when you don't and touch interaction as a first-class way of interacting with the device. We've learned a lot both in the operating system and changes we made in 8.1 to respond to customer feedback and make that experience smoother. And we've also learned on the hardware with, longer battery life and lighter weight. But, we also are continuing to innovate in thinking about the docking station or that touch-first keyboard, or some of the things that we're doing that are unique.

So on the touch cover you can swipe, on Windows 8 you can swipe from the sides. You can use the keyboard now to swipe, as well, or run your finger along the top of the keys to erase words on a Word document. So really working on scenarios and efficiency.

But, more so going forward, Surface is a stage for all of Microsoft, not just for Windows 8. So it brings together the best that Microsoft has to offer, with Skype, with SkyDrive, with all the things the Microsoft does, powered by Bing, and Bing search. And so it brings the full value of Microsoft into on one device. There's different sizes, different price points, new hardware technologies and opportunities. There's all kinds of things that we're working on.

Surface 2

In her Q&A responses -- which tended to be ambiguous, lengthy, and somewhat wandering -- Ms. Larson-Green also discusses Microsoft's belief that wearables and home systems will be two key emerging markets.  She also mentions that cloud computing will increasingly reduce the dependence on hardware from a computation perspective, freeing hardware designers to focus device-side effort on I/O and battery life.  However, she says that dedicated, high-power PC or console hardware will always be better at accomplishing some tasks, so there will be an ongoing market for it in the future.
 
It remains to be seen where Ms. Larson-Green winds up next.  One much-rumored possibility is that Stephen Elop will be appointed Microsoft's next CEO and Ms. Larson-Green will regain her EVP spot steering the devices division.  If that doesn't happen the former EVP could either continue to work as a deputy in the devices division for Mr. Elop, or be shuffled to the Windows team to help with the process of unifying the various branches of the Windows tree.

Source: UBS [Office App]





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