We're halfway through April, and it's already been a huge month for Windows fans: Less than a week after delivering Windows 8.1 Update 1, Microsoft has also shipped the final version of Windows Phone 8.1 to developers and anyone else who wants to get the release early. These two updates are big enough on their own. But taken together, they provide some clues for a future integrated platform that we might call "One Windows."
We might call it that because Microsoft does so internally. But don't take the moniker literally: Microsoft doesn't intend to actually whittle down its many various Windows versions to a single codebase per se. Instead, the "One" bit is more about integrating experiences that are common across the various Windows platforms where such commonalities make sense. It's sort of like the "One Microsoft" slogan the firm now uses to stress that different parts of the company are now working together as a cohesive whole.
That sounds like marketing baloney, I know. But in watching the Windows 8.x and Windows Phone platforms mature over the past few years, I'd started to wonder where and how the platforms might converge. After all, when the initial Windows Phone version debuted in late 2010 (it was anachronistically called Windows Phone 7), it looked and worked absolutely nothing like the then-current Windows version, Windows 7.
Related: Windows 8.1 Update 1 Review
It was only after Windows 8 shipped in late 2012 that we understood that this new touch-based Windows identity would be at least somewhat common across the platforms. But there were problems, of course. We now know that the Windows team at the time plundered the "Metro" user experiences from an unsuspecting Windows Phone team but then stopped communicating with their smartphone-based coworkers. The result was an OS that few PC users wanted, and one that was inconsistent and incompatible with Windows Phone to boot.
Whoever said "time heals all wounds" obviously never took part in an Internet flame war, let alone a corporate power struggle, but in this case, time helped. Windows 8 landed with a thud and within days, its architect was booted out of the company. Within a year, everyone in a position of power at Windows had either left Microsoft or was shunted off to places like Bing where they could do less damage to the firm's core platforms. And inexplicably, miraculously, the team in charge of Windows Phone—who had been basically ignored for the past few years—found themselves in charge of Windows.
So that's a nice story. But what's happened since then, and what is still in the process of happening, is that Microsoft finally did something that seems so obvious from the outside and is so patently useful and desirable in execution. It's making its products work more alike and work more together, where it makes sense.
So where Microsoft added PC-to-PC sync to Windows for items such as Start screen themes, Internet Explorer favorites, and the like, Windows Phone 8.1 brings many of these sync settings to your phone as well. If you change the accent color of your Windows Phone Start screen, it will change on your Windows 8.1-based PC or tablet, too, assuming you have it configured to do so.
This kind of sync works automatically for consumers through OneDrive, but it's of course policy-driven and can impact all kinds of work-related settings, including Wi-Fi connections, enterprise VPN, and the like.
What I like about this approach is that it doesn't require Microsoft to artificially commingle the Windows and Windows Phone platforms—where, say, Windows Phone becomes a Windows RT variant with a Phone app, or whatever. Yet you can still have meaningful similarities between each platform—not just in settings sync, but in various on-device experiences—while each retains its platform-specific uniqueness.
And then there are apps. With universal apps that can run on both Windows and Windows Phone on the horizon, those platform similarities are going to get even more, um, similar. We know that the "touch" version of Microsoft Office that will ship this year will be a universal app, and that means that it will run on Windows Phone just as it will on Windows tablets and PCs. That instantly opens up the possibility of a far more powerful productivity experience than was ever possible before on a phone. And it also means that Microsoft—like third party app developers—no longer needs to maintain separate apps.
I suppose it's possible that Windows Phone and Windows RT could in fact merge at one point, regardless. And I certainly see no reason why Windows RT can't run Windows Phone apps right now. But it's pretty clear that this platform merging isn't a strict requirement. And that the moves the new Windows team is making now go a long way towards achieving that "One Windows" goal without any further major platform upheavals. Looks good to me.