Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: Alternative Futures for Windows

Sun's OpenSolaris demos and pleas ("put in on your laptop -- really!") last week got me thinking about the desktop OS, or more precisely the boot OS ...

Some folks have hypothesized that 'Windows 7' will be ultra-modular and may introduce a new API scheme while supporting the old ones via virtualization.

I think this is the right idea, but can be taken much further, with benefit to the entire industry/ecosystem.


  1. The desktop will remain critical, as long as NVidia and Intel keep loading cores and cache onto chips, while keeping the price low and the power consumption efficient. Unless/until mobile broadband gets faster, more reliable, higher penetration, and about a 90% price cut, the desktop (or laptop or palmtop) is where a lot of computing will happen.
  2. Windows will remain vital for a majority of desktop users: businesses keep Windows to keep their legacy line-of-business apps running. Those workstations also run Office. Users want to run Office at home. There are also gamers who haven't migrated to consoles.
  3. (and this is the fun part): Windows doesn't have to be that desktop, and that desktop doesn't have to be Windows. Breaking them apart properly can create more value Microsoft (in terms of equivalent or greater revenue, with lower costs), and opportunity for everyone else (Apple, Sun, Linux distros, device makers).

What I am basically proposing is that Windows be so extremely modularized that many (eventually most or even all) flavors of it run only in virtualization on top of ... well ... anything.

Having Windows be the Ring 0 (or -1) operating system is hard and expensive and in most cases no longer necessary. It also doesn't pay well. Making an operating system run well on every cheap piece of hardware, taking the blame for the blue screens caused by other folks' faulty drivers, and being the "buck stops here" guy for security and resource management is neither cheap nor easy.

So I say: ditch it!

Could this work? In most cases, yes.

Businesses don't need Windows per se. What they need is an operating system that is supportable and manageable and can run their legacy Windows apps without incurring a bunch of additional cost.

What would a minimal Win32 Lite OS look like? The XP Embedded system builder is all about figuring that out. The Wine, Mainsoft, and Mono folks also have pretty good data on which APIs are critical for which sorts of apps. I'm not suggesting running a port of Win32 (or .Net), just that those folks have real good familiarity with which APIs and services are critical for running a user's apps, and the dependency chains between them. I don't claim to have that info at my fingertips, but we know that an upper bound for client software is XP Pro. From there we can subtract a lot.

So businesses could be running Linux or OpenSolaris or Mac OS, and run a SKU of Win32Lite in VirtualBox. Microsoft wins, because they only deliver and debug against a small set of virtual hardware devices, and can charge around the same amount as they currently do for the license (on an annual amortized or subscription basis) and support. As long as they produce a great implementation and great APIs to develop against (they've got a big headstart for desktop apps), there's no reason they wouldn't keep selling licenses.

Some security issues are lessened, because the virtualization layer is senior to the VM. Similarly with deployment, monitoring, resource management, etc. And hardware has migrated (and continues to migrate) to the USB bus, which is supported via the VM.

What about consumers? The rise of web applications doesn't mean the desktop is irrelevant -- all the apps in Flash, Silverlight, and Java make that clear. But those are browser plug-ins, which don't rely on Windows being underneath them. Home users may well want the latest Microsoft Office 2007, so Wine isn't their solution ... they'll buy a different SKU of Win32Lite to run office and their handful of random non-Web apps... maybe some of the Adobe products.

For the few cases where performance is important (let's say a non-linear editing tool for hacking HD videos), a simple user-mode service on the underlying host can deal with big number crunching or disk-file-shuffling jobs in cooperation with the VM. Again, most legacy consumer gadgets don't need to care about the "real" OS, since they're on USB and they're proxied through to the VM. Most of them will play nice with other-OS class drivers (such as 'mass storage' or 'image acquisition') anyway, so users may not need Windows at all for them.

So who isn't covered by these basic configurations? Folks with real custom hardware (strange ISA or PCI cards and the like) and hardcore gamers.

I have a feeling the 'real custom hardware' will show up more in businesses, which can lean on Microsoft's 10-year-plus support lifecycle policy. Even in slow industries, that should provide enough time to at least plan a migration.

For gamers, well, there are at least 3 options for Microsoft, all of which can provide revenue:

  1. Drive innovation in 3D acceleration under virtualization ... Fusion already supports DX9 Shader 2, and with Microsoft's contribution I'm sure the perf could get vaguely close to unmediated DX.
  2. Encourage gamers to migrate to a console... not a loss for Microsoft if they can bulk up margins even a little on the XBox
  3. Offer a DirectX-on-the-Metal version of Windows, to be run from a bootloader next to a 'productivity OS' ... and I'm thinking DX-on-the-Metal is not that dissimilar from XBox anyway.

And one more thing:

Sooner or later, if the must-boot-on-the-metal requirement has been gone from Windows, hardware changes will make it so that Windows no longer can boot on commodity metal.

The architecture shift will inevitably happen before some businesses are ready to make a switch (don't believe this? go look at the airlines). For some businesses, there may be expensive retro boards (just like there were Z80 boards for running CP/M in 65xx and x86 machines), but eventually we'll need to run Windows in a VM on top of some hardware emulation.

I don't think it's in the least unreasonable to expect emulated x86 hardware to run as fast at that point as real hardware does today. We'll call it MAME Enterprise Edition.


Security Retentive said...

For some great commentary on the whole virtualization check our Chris Hoff's blog,

He's got some great analysis about the costs of doing these sorts of things, how it doesn't really solve as many security issues as you'd think, etc.

In the corporate environment I think the biggest use for VM is the rebuilding problem. People are always trashing their machines, etc.

At the same time, given the general workload from most users, a low-latency Citrix or Sun-Ray solution is awfully attractive, and I think in high security/availability areas you'll see an ever bigger migration to that sort of solution. Most people don't need the speed of their local CPU 99.9% of the time...

Computer Support said...

During the due course of four or five years it seems that microsoft has adopted a bit of extra aggressive perspective for its product launch.. and due to this they are dumping a lot of incomplete job done in the market and Vista is one of the example...

But let hope that some thing doesn't happen with windows 7

Computer Repair said...

Excellent post with thoughtful insights but Microsoft strategic planning seems to have gone haywired, i hope Microsoft gets it act together as i believe it has been one of the first to create products and now seems to be last to respond to market requirements.

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