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What Does Microsoft's 'One Operating System' Talk Really Mean?

By William Peacock, Esq. on July 24, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

During Microsoft's recent earnings call, CEO Satya Nadella stated that the company would "streamline the next version of Windows from three operating systems into one single converged operating system," relates The Verge.

"This means one operating system that covers all screen sizes."

This isn't the first mention of a one-OS-fits-all vision -- Windows Threshold has been in the rumor pipeline for months, if not years, after all. But, it is certainly the clearest. Microsoft's vision is simple: phone, tablet, laptop, PC, Xbox, whatever -- one operating system and one set of universal apps that work everywhere.

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Kind of An Obvious Move, Isn't It?

You'd think, right? Except, Microsoft has tried this convergence strategy before: Anyone ever see one of those Windows XP or Windows 7-based tablets? Or tried to use Windows CE on an old smartphone or PDA? (OK, that OS used a different code base, but visually, it looked like Windows 95.)

But now, it's inching closer. With Windows Phone 7, it introduced the "Metro" tile-based interface that is now ubiquitous (for better or worse) across all of its platforms: PCs, tablets, smartphones, and the Xbox One. Visually, the difference between all of the different versions of Windows are minimal; now the company needs to clean up the code.

Why Is This So Difficult?

Nearly all PCs and laptops use what are called x86 processors. Smartphones and tablets use more energy efficient (but slower) ARM-based processors. In simplest terms, the difference in code between the two is like Japanese and Chinese.

What you'd need is to either get all devices on a single type of chip (this is what Intel, the largest x86 manufacturer, would prefer), or you'd need to create a common set of code that works across both types of devices. Intel has already created chips that can compete, somewhat, with ARM-based chips on price and power consumption, but so far, very few phone manufacturers have used the chips in devices.

As for the software, Microsoft's Windows RT for tablets and Windows Phone 8.1 both run on ARM code. Windows 8.1 (for PCs) obviously runs on x86 code. But with each incarnation of Windows, the company has shifted the various versions' code closer to each other. At its BUILD conference earlier this year, it showed up with tools that can help developers make Universal Apps that run across both systems.

And This Means What to Me?

For consumers, this means you won't have to buy the same app six times: If you have an Xbox, a laptop, and a Windows Phone, then your app, once purchased, will work on all of your devices. And it'll also increase app availability: Right now, nobody develops apps for Windows RT devices because nobody buys RT devices and nobody, except Microsoft, manufactures these devices.

Owners of one of these semi-orphan tablets currently have very few app choices. Windows Phone users have a few more choices, but nothing compared to their Android and iPhone-equipped friends. But if a developer can use the same code for Windows desktops as she can for a Windows tablet, there's no real reason not to do so.

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