Microsoft Muddies the One Windows Waters

Microsoft Muddies the One Windows Waters

No, Virginia, we're not heading towards a single Windows

Well, here we go again. During yesterday's post-earnings conference call, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated that the firm was preparing to streamline Windows from three separate operating systems into a "single converged operating system for screens of all sizes," touching off another round of confusion. But there's no reason to be confused: This isn't news, and it isn't even new. And it most certainly doesn't actually mean that there will only be "one" version of Windows 9 (or whatever) that runs on PC, tablets, phones, TVs, embedded devices, and so on.

But then this is what happens when you're not paying attention.

Mr. Nadella said two things about Windows convergence yesterday. The first seems to imply that there will in fact only be a certain version of Windows:

"In the year ahead, we are investing in ways that will ensure our device OS and first party hardware aligned to our core," he said. "We will streamline the next version of Windows from three operating systems into one single converged operating system for screens of all sizes."

Sounds clear enough. Except that it isn't.

In a Q&A session at the end of the call, an understandably confused reported asked Microsoft about this "One Windows" thing. And then we got the real answer.

"My statement was more to do with just even the engineering approach," Mr. Nadella said. "The reality is that we actually did not have one Windows; we had multiple Windows operating systems inside of Microsoft. We had one for phone, one for tablets and PCs, one for Xbox, one for even embedded. So we had many, many of these efforts. So now we have one team with the layered architecture that enables us to in fact one for developers bring that collective opportunity with one store, one commerce system, one discoverability mechanism. It also allows us to scale the UI across all screen sizes; it allows us to create this notion of universal Windows apps and being coherent there.

So that's what more I was referencing and our SKU strategy will remain by segment, we will have multiple SKUs for enterprises, we will have for OEM, we will have for end-users. And so we will – be disclosing and talking about our SKUs as we get further along, but my statement was more [only] to do with how we are bringing teams together to approach Windows as one ecosystem very differently than we ourselves have done in the past."

In other words, nothing to see here. Not really.

Microsoft's efforts to combine the various Windows backends is laudable, but I'm not even sure it's all that different from what came before, besides, in part from the fact that one "team"—really "one business unit" is working on all of it. Windows Core, which used to be in Server but was placed under Client thanks to Stephen Sinofsky. Client. Phone. Server. Embedded, of which there are/were both CE and traditional Windows variants. Windows for the Internet of Things. Xbox One. They're all under a new OS business unit led by Terry Myerson. It's part waving of hands. Part important change.

The unified store thing falls more into the hand-waving part. Microsoft didn't actually develop separate store back-ends for Windows and Windows Phone, and bringing those two things together isn't exactly a huge engineering feat. Bringing them together for users is about UI, not engineering. Ditto the developer bit: Microsoft's ongoing efforts to "combine" the Dev Centers for Windows and Phone make sense, and are laudable. But they are also obvious.

A unified developer platform... that one is interesting. But come on, that's smoke and mirrors too. The big combination we've seen so far is Windows + Windows Phone: Windows Phone started out with a Silverlight API (plus a separate API for games), then moved to a subset/different version of Windows 8's Windows Runtime (WinRT) called Windows Phone Runtime (WinPRT in Windows Phone 8. Now in Windows Phone 8.1, it's just WinRT, like Windows 8.1, and you can reuse a lot more code and even create Universal Apps (which, by the way, are not really single apps that run on both platforms). But no one can (yet) do this with Xbox One; there's no Visual Studio Express 2014 Xbox, for example. And the most leading edge/news Windows version, the as-yet-unnamed Windows for the Internet of Things? That came lumbering out of the gates—in the past few weeks no less—supporting only 1990's era technologies like C++ and Win32.

So let's not get too excited here. "One Windows" is more marketing than anything. And it's an ongoing effort. When Windows 9 ships next year, you can expect at least three different product versions, or SKUs. And that's just Client.

Here's the real reason Mr. Nadella (mis)spoke about "One Windows." It's about creating a positive impression that Microsoft is taking a previously scattered set of products and making the whole thing more efficient. This is understandable. But the company needs to be clearer when it speaks. We're not getting one Windows. And thank goodness. That wouldn't make sense at all.

I'll have another article about the earnings conference call soon.

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