Windows will soon be one operating system across PCs and mobile devices. Or so read the breathless headlines after Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said on the company’s quarterly earnings call that Microsoft will merge its different variants of Windows into one platform.
“We will streamline the next version of Windows from three operating systems into one single converged operating system for screens of all sizes,” Nadella said.
The problem is that this isn’t exactly true. Neither is it a new announcement from Microsoft.
When Nadella said that Windows would soon be “single converged operating system,” he was talking to investors, analysts and financial media on an earnings call. Quarterly earnings calls are the place where companies rehash the announcements and achievements from the previous three months while providing a bit of financial guidance and clarification going forward.
Outside of the semantics of how much money a company is or isn’t making, earnings calls aren’t typically the place where companies make new product or technology announcements.
Why Wall Street Went Nuts
The breathless coverage of “Windows as one operating system” came from business and Wall Street types thinking that Microsoft was about to create one SKU—i.e., stock keeping unit, the identification given to individual items of product inventory—for all of Windows. One SKU for all of Windows would make it more difficult for Wall Street analysts to track sales of its various versions and hence, understand Microsoft’s business.
But that’s not what Satya meant, as he later clarified in the call.
“Our SKU strategy will remain by segment,” Nadella said in response to an analyst question. “We will have multiple SKUs for enterprises, we will have for OEM, we will have for end-users.”
So calm down, Wall Street. Streamlining Windows is not really a business decision, but a technological one.
What One Windows Really Means
Microsoft builds three primary versions of Windows, with variants for items like embedded systems, Xbox and enterprises: Windows 8.1, Windows Phone and Windows RT. Microsoft has said nothing about Windows RT during any of its events and announcements this year so far, but it still technically exists.
When Microsoft says that it is streamlining Windows, it means that it’s creating a common core—a kernel—that will enable developers to build one Windows app and have it run on all versions of the operating system. The core, known as the NT core, has been the central aspect of Windows since the early 1990s.
When Nadella speaks of one Windows, he is referring to Microsoft’s longstanding efforts to move the NT core to work efficiently on ARM processors as well as its longstanding support of x86 processors. That mean apps built for Windows Pro will also work on Windows Phone and Windows RT (both of which run on ARM, the primary architecture that runs nearly all smartphones and tablets). This streamlined core will also run on other Windows-related products, such as Windows Embedded (that runs things like automatic teller machines) and Xbox One.
Microsoft has been fairly transparent about this goal over the years. It started in the Microsoft Research department (as “Experiment 19”) and is finally on the verge of reality, most likely with the announcement of Windows 9, probably in 2015.
One common core for Windows affects other aspects of Microsoft’s Windows sphere. Windows developers can now build and distribute apps to all of Microsoft’s supported devices, which means Microsoft will need to update the Windows app store to support the cross-device functionality. Microsoft has already announced plans to unify the Windows Phone and Windows app stores.
Microsoft is also updating its developer environment—Visual Studio—so that app builders can reuse as much of their code as possible between variants of Windows. That means a common set of application programming interfaces, backend cloud support and design support.
To support this change, the Windows team at Microsoft is now one unified group encompassing Windows Phone, Xbox, Windows Pro and all the other variants under the company’s head of operating systems Terry Myerson.
One Windows is like a tree with a large trunk and many arms. It is a realignment in how the company is organized from both a personnel and technological standpoint. This will have big repercussions for Microsoft’s business model, but it’s not a story Microsoft hasn’t already told many times before Nadella mentioned it during an earnings call.
Lead image: Microsoft head of operating systems Terry Myerson at Build 2014 by ReadWrite