Microsoft is pursuing the ideal of OS platforms: a unified code base that runs from smartphones to servers, giving users a consistent experience across devices at home and at work, and developers a common tool set for building applications.
“We really should have one silicon interface for all of our devices. We should have one set of developer APIs on all of our devices,” said Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Operating Systems Engineering Group, during the company’s meeting with financial analysts on Thursday.
“And all of the apps we bring to end users should be available on all of our devices,” he added.
This is the ambitious goal Myerson’s team has been chasing since the Operating Systems Engineering Group was formed two months ago as part of a broad reorganization of the company.
At the time, CEO Steve Ballmer said that group would be in charge of “all our OS work for console, to mobile device, to PC, to back-end systems,” as well as of the OS “core cloud services.”
Myerson’s remarks on Thursday made it clear how challenging his group’s mission is.
In addition to the single developer tool set and application parity across devices, his team is working on “one core [cloud] service which is enabling all of our devices,” while at the same time providing a “tailored” experience for each device, from 3-inch phones to 60-inch TV sets.
“We want to facilitate the creation of a common, familiar experience across all of those devices, but fundamentally tailored and unique for each device,” Myerson said.
His team’s vision is “very clear” and they’re pursuing it with a sense of urgency, he added.
While the potential benefits to customers and developers sound compelling, the undertaking is technologically daunting and, according to some critics, conceptually flawed.
For example, Apple has a dual-OS strategy that has worked very well for it so far: the Mac OS for desktops and laptops, and iOS for phones and tablets.
Google also has gone down this route with ChromeOS for the Chromebook laptops and desktops and Android for tablets and smartphones, although some question if the line between the two OSes will blur in the future.
In addition, Microsoft currently has a mess on its hands with Windows 8. The tile-based, touch-optimized OS was supposed to propel Microsoft into a competitive position against Apple and Android vendors in the tablet market. Instead it stumbled out of the gate, hobbled by a general dislike for some of its key features by many consumers and IT pros. An update that addresses the main complaints, Windows 8.1, is due in mid-October.
And as Myerson’s team aims for the moon, down here on Earth Microsoft still has two main versions of Windows 8, a situation that has caused confusion among customers as well. There’s Windows 8 for x86 devices, an OS that can run legacy Windows 7 applications, and then there’s Windows RT, which can’t run those apps because it’s for devices that run on ARM chips.
Then there’s Windows Phone 8, which has also suffered from low adoption primarily because, as in the tablet market, Microsoft has a small share in smartphones. Its acquisition of Nokia’s smartphone business, which hasn’t closed, is part of its effort to turn that tide.
Lukewarm reception for tablets
Also not helping matters is the lukewarm reception that the Microsoft-built and branded Surface tablets have received—both the Windows 8 and Windows RT models.
As would be expected, many developers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Windows 8 while Microsoft sorts out the problems and starts concretely delivering on its unified OS plan.