If you were to believe what some games industry big wigs were saying you’d be lead to believe that Windows 8 was the beginning of the rapture for games on the Microsoft platform. At first it was just a couple developers, big ones in their own right (like Notch), but when someone like Gabe Newell chimes in you start to take notice as distributing games on the Windows platform is his bread and butter and he doesn’t say things like this lightly. However as someone who’s grown up on the Microsoft platform, from the old MS-DOS days until today where I’m running Windows 8 full time on my home PC, and has made his career on their products I still can’t help but feel that their concerns are misplaced as they seem to hinge on a fundamental miscalculation about Microsoft’s overall product strategy.
Those concerns are laid out in lengthy detail by Casey Muratori in his latest instalment of Critical Detail: The Next Twenty Years. In there he lays out the future of the Microsoft platform, drawing on the past few decades of Microsoft’s developments and using them to draw conclusions about what the Microsoft ecosystem will look like in 2032. In this world the future of games on Windows seems grim as all the current AAA titles don’t meet the requirements to be present on the Windows Store and the desktop interface is long gone, effectively destroying the games industry on any PC running their operating system.
It’s a grim future and the number of people worried about this coming to fruition seems to increase on a daily basis. However I believe that some of the assumptions made ignore critical facts that render all this doom and glooming moot, mostly because they ignore Microsoft’s larger strategies.
Before I dive into that however let me just acknowledge that yes the Windows Store doesn’t seem like it would be a great place for current games developers. Realistically it’s no different from Google Play or the iOS App Store as many of the requirements are identical. Indeed all of the platforms strive for the same “family friendly” environment that’s bereft of porn (or anything overtly sexual), violence and excessive profanity which does exclude a good number of games from making their debut on the platform. This hasn’t stopped countless numbers of companies from profiting on this platform but there is no denying that the traditional games industry, with its love of all those things these market places abhor, would struggle with these guidelines.
The fundamental misstep that many games developers appear to be making though is thinking that the Windows Store and the guidelines that come along with it will be the only platform available for them to release games onto the Windows operating system. Looking back to previous examples of Windows does show that Microsoft puts an end date on many technologies however I don’t believe that the desktop will be among them. Sure you might not be able to write a DOS game and have it run in Windows 8 but you can take a MFC app built in 1992 and run today (with the biggest challenge there possibly being recompiling it, but the same code will work).
The reason for the Metro (or Modern or whatever they’re calling it now) interface’s existence is not, as many believe, a direct reaction to the success of the iPad/Android devices and Microsoft’s failure to capitalize on it. The Metro interface, which is built upon the WinRT framework, exists primarily to provide a unified platform where applications can provide a unified experience across the three major screens which users interact with. The capabilities provided within that framework are a fairly comprehensive subset of the larger .NET framework but it’s not fully feature complete as the instruction set needed to be cut down in order for it to be usable on ARM based devices. Whilst it still has access to the goodies required to make games (you can get DirectX on it for example) it’s still not the default platform, is just another one which developers can target.
If the WinRT/Metro framework was Microsoft’s preferred direction for all application development then it wouldn’t be the bastard step-child of their main development technologies, it would become the new .NET. Whilst it is going to be the framework for cross platform applications it’s most definitely not going to be the platform for native development on Windows PCs. The argument can be made that Microsoft wants to transition everyone to WinRT as the default platform but I’ve seen no evidence to support that apart from the idea that because the Metro UI is front and centre that means it’s Microsoft’s main focus.
I find that hard to believe as whilst Metro is great on tablets and smart phones it unfortunately struggles in a mouse and keyboard environment as nearly every review of it has mentioned. Microsoft isn’t stupid, they’ve likely heard much of this feedback through other channels and will be integrating it into their future product strategies. To simply say that they’ll go “Nope, we know we’re going in the right direction and completely killing the desktop” is to be ignorant of the fact that Microsoft works extremely closely with their customers, especially the big organisations who have been the most vocal opponents of Metro-first design. They’re also a pretty big player in the games industry, what with that Xbox being so darn popular, so again I fail to see how they wouldn’t take the feedback on board, especially from such a dedicated audience like us PC gamers.
I’d lend some credence to the theory if the desktop environment hadn’t received much love in Windows 8 in lieu of all the work done on Metro but yet again I find myself coming up empty handed. The UI received a massive overhaul so that the styling would be in line with the rest of Microsoft’s products and there have been numerous improvements in functionality and usability. Why Microsoft would invest so heavily in something that will be slated to be removed within a couple generations of Windows releases is beyond me as most of their deprecated technologies receive no updates for decades prior to them being made obsolete.
And the applications, oh don’t get me started about Microsoft’s own applications.
Whilst Metro has some of the basic applications available in it (like Office and….yeah Office) all of Microsoft’s current catalogue received a revamp as desktop applications, not Metro apps. You’d think that if their future direction was going to be all Metro-esque that more of their staple application suites would have received that treatment, but they didn’t. In fact the amount of applications that are available on the desktop vs the ones available on Metro makes it look more like Metro was the afterthought of the desktop and not the other way around.
If Microsoft’s future is going to be all Windows Store and WinRT apps there’s really no evidence showing to show for it and this is the reason why I don’t feel sympathetic to those developers who are bellyaching about it. Sure if you take a really, really narrow view of the Microsoft ecosystem it looks like the end is nigh for the current utopia of game development that is Windows 7 but in doing so you’re ignoring the wealth of information that will prove you otherwise. The Windows Store might not be your distribution platform of choice (and it likely will never be) but don’t think that the traditional methods that you’ve been using are going anywhere because if Microsoft’s overall strategy is anything to go by they aren’t.
In the middle of last year I commented on some rumours that were circling around the Internet about how Xbox Live was coming to Windows 8 and along with it the ability to play some Xbox titles. The idea would have seemed to come out of left field for a lot of people as there’s no real incentive to enable such functionality (especially considering just how damn hard it would be to emulate the Xbox processor) but considering it alongside the Three Screens and a cloud idea it was just another step along the platform unification path. Since then however I hadn’t seen much more movement on the idea and instead figured that eventually everything would be united under the WinRT platform and was waiting to see an announcement to that effect.
The lion’s share of the titles that will be released on the Windows 8 platform are from Microsoft Studios with a couple big name developers like Rovio and Gameloft joining in the party. All of the first wave of titles will be playable on any Windows 8 platform and a few of them (most notably the relatively simple titles like Solitaire and some word games) will stretch onto Windows Phone 8 with things like resuming games that you started on another platform. Looking at the list of titles I can’t help but notice the common thread among them and I’m not quite sure to make of it.
For many of the third party titles its quite obvious that their release on Windows 8 (ostensibly on WinRT) is just yet another platform for them to have their product on. Angry Birds, for instance, seems to make it a point of pride that they’re on pretty much every platform imaginable and the fact that they’re on Windows 8 really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Indeed quite a lot of them are already multi-platform titles that cut their teeth on one mobile platform or another and realistically their move onto the Xbox (and from there to Windows 8) will just be another string in their bow. I guess what I’m getting at is that many of these titles already had the hard work of getting ports working done for them and it’s less indicative of how flexible the underlying WinRT platform really is.
Indeed the most innovative uses of WinRT come from the first party Microsoft titles which, whilst being unfortunately bland, do show what a truly agnostic application is capable of. They all feature a pause/resume function that works across platforms, ability to work with both touch interfaces as well as traditional mouse and keyboards and lastly some of them feature cross platform competitive play. It’s unfortunate that the third party developers didn’t look to take advantage of these capabilities but I can understand why they didn’t for these first wave of games; the investment would be too high for the potential pay off.
What I think really needs to be done is to bring the WinRT platform to the Xbox360 via a system update. Whilst its all well and good to have some Xbox titles ported to Windows 8 its really only a stopgap solution to bringing a unified platform to all of the three screens. Right now the only platform that’s lacking some form WinRT is the TV screen and that could be remedied via the Xbox. Whether that comes in the current generation or in Durango though will have to remain to be seen but it would be a great misstep from Microsoft to ignore the fact that the final piece of the puzzle is WinRT in the living room.
Microsoft really is onto something with the unified experience between all their available platforms and they’re really not that far off achieving it. Whilst it will take a while for third party developers to come out with apps that take advantage of the platform the sooner that it’s available across all three screens the sooner those apps will come. This first wave of games from Xbox live gives us a tantalizing little glance of what an unified platform could bring to us and hopefully subsequent waves take inspiration from what Microsoft has been able to do and integrate that into future releases.
I have a confession to make: I never took the plunge and bought a Windows Phone 7 handset like I said I would. It’s not because I didn’t want one, new gadgets are something I have a hard time turning down, it’s just that my desire to get one was overcome by the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a handset I wouldn’t use every day. I still kept my eye on them thanks to several people I work with having them but even their raving reviews of it weren’t enough to pull me away from my now Ice Cream Sandwich blessed Galaxy S2. In all honesty I had pretty much given up on Microsoft’s mobile efforts as they didn’t look like they’d be able to retake the crown they’ve lost to Google and Apple.
News comes today however that Microsoft has announced their latest version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. Unlike Windows Phone 7 which was more of a preview of Windows 8 than anything else WP8 keeps the same aesthetic that’s won them significant praise whilst firmly bringing their mobile platform into the Three Screens vision. WP8 also brings all the other improvements we’ve come to expect from new release such as support for faster phones, bigger screens, NFC and an upgraded browser that. The biggest improvement, from my point of view at least, is that WP8 devices will be running the full WinRT framework essentially elminating the gap between their tablet/ARM devices and their mobile line.
Now this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, Apple has long had a similar level of platform ubiquity between their tablet and handset platforms. However WinRT does provide the capability for applications to run on desktops as well, something Apple (or anyone else for that matter) has yet to achieve. Whilst the 3rd screen, the TV, has yet to receive the WinRT treatment from any Microsoft product it would seem to be a safe bet that the next generation Xbox will feature the framework. This is of course wild speculation on my part however Microsoft would be foolish not to take advantage of the foothold they already have in the home entertainment space and I’m sure the people inside Microsoft think in the same way.
Interestingly enough the announcement of Windows Phone 8 comes hot off the heels of another announcement from Microsoft: that of their new Surface tablet. Now this isn’t to be confused with the original Surface table as that’s now been renamed to Microsoft PixelSense. No this tablet is a lining up to be a direct competitor to the iPad having very similar styling and identical use cases. The differences appear to be however that the Surface will come in two versions, one WinRT only and the other a full blown x86 PC. The delineation isn’t made lightly and it’s obvious that the x86 model is going to be aimed more at corporate users who need all their applications and the WinRT version will be meant for the consumers. It looks like a solid product however I can’t help but shake the feeling that it might not be the greatest step forward for Microsoft.
You see whilst Microsoft does need to do something about getting into the tablet space they’ve already done most of the legwork with Windows 8. They already have great relationships with OEMs and this is why you don’t see a whole bunch of Microsoft branded devices around the shop: they make the software and others provide the hardware. Getting into the tablet business means they’re kind of thumbing their nose at the OEMs, especially when each license for Windows 8 will cost them $85. As long as Microsoft makes their tablet a premium price range product though this won’t be so much of an issue but they could really do some damage to their OEM relationships if their tablets debut in the $200~$400 range. Since there’s not a whole bunch of information about it now I’ll have to play wait and see with this one as things could change significantly between now and launch day.
Microsoft’s mobile platform has been taking a battering from every side but with the unification between all of their platforms they might just be able to tempt people away from their Android and iPhone comfort zones. Certainly the unified platform provided by WinRT will be attractive to developers and that will hopefully see more killer applications find their way onto Windows Phone 8. The next year of Windows 8 related releases will be key for Microsoft’s future and will be telling if their vision for platform unification is the direction they need to be heading in.
The current generation of consoles is the longest lived of any generation of the past 2 decades. There are many reasons for this but primarily it came from the fact that the consoles of this generation, bar the Nintendo Wii, where light years ahead of their time at release. In a theoretical sense both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation 3 had 10 times the computing power of their PC contemporaries at release and they took several years to catch up. Of course now the amount of computing power available, especially that of graphics cards, far surpasses that which is available in console form and the gaming community is starting to look towards the next generation of consoles.
The last couple weeks have seen quite a lot of rumour and speculation going around as to what the next generation of consoles might bring us. Just last week some very detailed specifications on the PlayStation4, codenamed Orbis, were made public and the month before revealed that the new Xbox is codenamed Durango. As far as solid information goes however there’s been little to come by and neither Sony or Microsoft have been keen to comment on any of the speculation. Humour me then as I dive into some of the rumours and try to make sense of everything that’s flying around.
I’ll focus on Durango for the moment as I believe that it will play a critical part in Microsoft’s current platform unification crusade. Long time readers will know how much I’ve harped on about Microsoft’s Three Screens idea in the past and how Windows 8 is poised to make that a reality. What I haven’t mentioned up until now is that Microsoft didn’t appear to have a solution for the TV screen as the Xbox didn’t appear to be compatible with the WindowsRT framework that would underpin their platform unification. Rumours then began swirling that the next Xbox could be sporting a x86 compatible CPU, something which would make Metro apps possible. However SemiAccurate reports that it’s highly unlikely that the Durango CPU will be anything other than another PowerPC chip, effectively putting the kibosh on a Three Screens idea that involves the Xbox.
Now I don’t believe Microsoft is completely unaware of the foot hold they have in the living room when it comes to the Xbox so it follows that either Durango will have a x86/ARM architecture (the 2 currently confirmed WinRT compatible architectures) or WinRT will in fact work on the new Xbox. The latter is the interesting point to consider and there’s definitely some meat in that idea. Recall in the middle of last year that there was strong evidence to suggest that Windows 8 would be able to play Xbox360 games suggesting that there was some level of interoperability between the two platforms (and by virtue the Windows Phone 7 platform as well). Funnily enough if this is the case then it’s possible that Metro apps could run on the Wii U but I doubt we’ll ever see that happen.
Coincidentally Orbis, the PlayStation3 successor, is said to be sporting a x64 CPU in essence eliminating most of the differences between it and conventional PCs. Whilst the advantages to doing this are obvious (cross platform releases with only slight UI and controller modifications, for starters) the interesting point was that it almost guarantees that there will be no backwards compatibility for PlayStation3 games. Whilst the original PlayStation3s contained an actual PS2 inside them the vast majority of them simply emulated the PS2 in software, something that it was quite capable of doing thanks to the immense power under of the PlayStation3. Using a more traditional x64 CPU makes this kind of software emulation nigh on impossible and so backwards compatibility can only be achieved with either high end components or an actual Cell processor. As Ars Technica points out it’s very likely that the next generation of consoles will be more in line with current hardware than being the computational beasts of their predecessors, mostly because neither Microsoft or Sony wants to sell consoles at a loss again.
The aversion to this way of doing business, which both Microsoft and Sony did for all their past console releases, is an interesting one. Undoubtedly they’ve seen the success of Nintendo and Apple who never sell hardware at a loss and wish to emulate that success but I think it’s far more to do with the evolution of how a console gets used. Indeed on the Xbox360 more people use it for entertainment purposes than they do for gaming and there are similar numbers for the PlayStation3. Sony and Microsoft both recognise this and will want to capitalize on this with the next generation. This also means that they can’t support their traditional business model of selling at a loss and making it up on the games since a lot of consoles won’t see that many games purchased for them. There are other ways to make up this revenue short fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can keep using the console as a loss leader for their other products.
All this speculation also makes the idea of the SteamBox that much more interesting as it no longer seems like so much of an outlier when lumped in with the next generation of consoles. There’s also strong potential that should a console have a x86/x64 architecture that the Steam catalogue could come to the platform. Indeed the ground work has already been done with titles like Portal 2 offering a rudimentary level of Steam integration on the PlayStation3, so it’s not much of a stretch to think that it will make a reappearance on the next generation.
It will be interesting to see how these rumours develop over the next year or so as we get closer to the speculated announcement. Suffice to say that the next generation of consoles will be very different beasts to their predecessors with a much more heavy focus on traditional entertainment. Whether this is a positive thing for the gaming world at large will have to remain to be seen but there’s no mistaking that some radical change is on the horizon.
Last week saw the much talked about Microsoft BUILD conference take place, the one for which all us developers tentatively held our breath wondering what the future of the Microsoft platform would be. Since then there’s been a veritable war chest of information that’s come from the conference and I unfortunately didn’t get the time to cover it last week (thanks mostly to my jet setting ways). Still not writing about it right away has given me some time to digest the flood of information and speculation that this conference has brought us and I personally believe that Windows 8 is nothing but good news for developers, even those who thought it would lead to the death of their ecosystem.
For starters the project codenamed Jupiter has an official name of Windows Run Time (WinRT) and looks to be an outright replacement for the Win32 API that’s been around since 1993. The big shift here is that whilst Win32 was designed for a world of C programmers WinRT will instead be far more object-oriented, aimed more directly at the C++ world. WinRT applications will also use the XAML framework for their user interfaces and will compile to native x86 code rather than to .NET bytecode like they currently do. WinRT applications also do away with the idea of dialog boxes, removing the notion of modal applications completely (at least, in the native API). This coupled with the fact that any API that takes longer than 50ms to respond being asynchronous means that Metro apps are inherently more responsive, something that current x86 desktop apps can’t guarantee. Additionally should an app be designed for the Metro styled interface it must only use the WinRT libraries for the interface, you can’t have mixed Metro/Classic applications.
If you’re after an in-depth breakdown of what WinRT means for developers Miguel de Icaza (of Mono fame) has a great breakdown here.
WinRT will also not be a universal platform on which will provide backwards compatibility for all current Windows applications. It’s long been known that Windows 8 will be able to run on ARM processors but what wasn’t clear was whether or not current applications would be compatible with the flavour of Windows running on said architecture. As it turns out x86 applications won’t work on the ARM version of Windows however applications written on the WinRT framework will run on every platform with only minor code changes (we’re talking single digit lines here). Those legacy applications will still run perfectly well in the Desktop mode that Windows 8 offers and they’ll be far from second class citizens as Microsoft recognizes how things like their Office suite don’t translate well to the tablet environment.
Taking this all into consideration it seems like there will be a line in the sand between what I’ll call “Full” Windows 8 users and “Metro” based users. Whilst initially I thought that Jupiter would mean any application (not just those developed on WinRT) would be able to run anywhere it seems that only WinRT apps have that benefit, with current x86 apps relegated to desktop mode. That leads me to the conclusion that the full Windows 8 experience, including the Desktop app, won’t be available to all users. In fact those running on ARM architecture more than likely won’t have access to the desktop at all instead being relegated to just the Metro UI. This isn’t a bad thing at all since tablets, phones et. al. have very different use cases than those of the desktop but, on the surface at least, it would appear to be a step away from their Three Screens vision.
From what I can tell though Microsoft believes the future is Metro styled apps for both desktop and tablet users a like. John Gruber said it best when he said ”it’s going to be as if Mac OS X could run iPad apps, but iPads could still only run iPad apps. Metro everywhere, not Windows everywhere.” which I believe is an apt analogy. I believe Microsoft will push WinRT/Metro as the API to rule them all and with them demoing Xbox Live on Windows 8 it would seem that at least on some level WinRT will be making it’s way to the Xbox, thereby realizing Microsoft’s Three Screens idea. Whether the integration between those 3 platforms works as well as advertised remains to be seen but the demo’s shown at BUILD are definitely promising.
However it has come to my attention that Microsoft has been hinting at a potential panacea for all these woes, for quite some time now.
Back in January there were many rumours circling around the new features we could look forward to in Windows 8. Like any speculation on upcoming products there’s usually a couple facts amongst the rumour mill, usually from those who are familiar with the project. Two such features which got some air time were Mosh and Jupiter, two interesting ideas that at the time were easily written off as either speculation or things that would never eventuate. However Mosh, rumoured at the time to be a “tiled based interface”, turned out to be the feature which caused the developer uproar just a couple months ago. Indeed the speculation was pretty much spot on since it’s basically the tablet interface for Windows 8, but it also has a lot of potential for nettops and netbooks since underneath the full Windows 8 experience is still available.
The Jupiter rumour then can be taken a little bit more seriously, but I can see why many people passed it over back at the start of this year. In essence Jupiter just looked like yet another technology platform from Microsoft, just like Windows Presentation Framework and Silverlight before it. Some did recognize it as having the potential to be the bridge for Windows 8 onto tablets which again shoe horned it into being just another platform. However some did speculate that Jupiter could be much more than that, going as far to say that it could be the first step towards a unified development platform across the PC, tablet and mobile phone space. If Microsoft could pull that kind of stunt off they’d not only have one of the most desirable platforms for developers they’d also be taking a huge step forward towards realizing their Three Screens philosophy.
I’ll be honest and say that up until yesterday I had no idea that Jupiter existed, so it doesn’t surprise me that many of the outraged developers wouldn’t have known about it either. However yesterday I caught wind of an article from TechCrunch that laid bare all the details of what Jupiter could be:
- It is a new user interface library for Windows. (source)
- It is an XAML-based framework. (source)
- It is not Silverlight or WPF, but will be compatible with that code. (source)
- Developers will write immersive applications in XAML/C#/VB/C++ (source, source, source,source)
- It will use IE 10′s rendering engine. (source)
- DirectUI (which draws the visual elements on the screen, arrived in Windows Vista) is being overhauled to support the XAML applications. (source, source)
- It will provide access to Windows 8 elements (sensors, networking, etc.) via a managed XAML library. (source)
- Jupiter apps will be packaged as AppX application types that could be common to both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. (source, source, source, source)
- The AppX format is universal, and can used to deploy native Win32 apps, framework-based apps (Silverlight, WPF), Web apps, and games (source)
- Jupiter is supposed to make all the developers happy, whether .NET (i.e., re-use XAML skills), VB, old-school C++ or Silverlight/WPF. (Source? See all the above!)…
Why does Jupiter matter so much? If it’s not clear from the technical details above, it’s because Jupiter may end up being the “one framework” to rule them all. That means it might be possible to port the thousands of Windows Phone apps already written with Silverlight to Windows 8 simply by reusing existing code and making small tweaks. Or maybe even no tweaks. (That part is still unclear). If so, this would be a technical advantage for developers building for Windows Phone 8 (code-named “Apollo” by the way, the son of “Jupiter”) or Windows 8.
In a nutshell it looks like Microsoft is looking to unify at all of the platforms that run Windows under the Jupiter banner, enabling developers to port applications between them without having to undergo massive rework of their code. Of course the UI would probably need to be redone for each target platform but since the same design tools will work regardless of the platform the redesigns will be far less painful then they currently are. The best part about Jupiter though is that it leverages current developer skill sets, enabling anyone with experience on the Windows platform to be able to code in the new format.
Jupiter then represents a fundamental shift in Windows developer ecosystem, one that’s for the better of everyone involved.
We’ll have to wait until BUILD in September to find out the official word from Microsoft on what Jupiter will actually end up being, but there’s a lot of evidence mounting that it will be the framework to use when building applications for Microsoft’s systems. Microsoft has a proven track record of creating some of the best developer tools around and that, coupled with the potential to have one code base to rule them all, could make all of Microsoft’s platforms extremely attractive for developers. Whether this will translate into success for Microsoft on the smartphone and tablet space remains to be seen, but they’ll definitely be giving Apple and Google a run for their developers.
I’m not usually one to comment on rumours since most of the time they get us no where and have great potential to disappoint, something I like to avoid. Still if there’s a plausible root to a rumour that warrants investigation I’m more than happy to have a go at it since the sceptic in me loves debunking stuff and the geek revels in future possibilities that have their base in reality. Today such a rumour fell right into my lap with the usual lack of any official confirmation (or denial) and just a few tenuous clues as to how this reality could come to be.
That rumour was that Microsoft’s next iteration of Windows would be able to play Xbox games.
Of course the first part of any rumour is to try and track down the original sources to see if there’s any more information you can glean from them. After starting at Destructoid and working my way down the rabbit hole of back links I eventually came to these two sites who don’t even classify this idea as a rumour but give little else on the details. It’s long been known that Xbox Live would be coming to Windows 8 (much like it has come to the Windows Phone 7 platform) but the idea that you’d be able to load up your Xbox games on your PC or tablet device was a new and novel idea that no one had really considered before. Since this information is coming to us via reports of finding Xbox360 code references in the leaked Windows 8 builds it would be easy to write it off as pure rumour milling, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that.
I’ve long talked about Microsoft’s Three Screens vision for the future world of computing, an idea where no matter what your viewing device (being either that of your PC, portable device or TV) the experience remains the same. Windows 8 was the first step towards this with the Metro inspired UI that will be available across both PC and tablet devices alike. One piece of the puzzle was missing however, the TV, and if I’m honest I wasn’t sure what strategy Microsoft was going to go for in order to bridge the gap. The answer, I believe, lies within Xbox Live as with its debut on the PC it will become the very first Three Screens enabled application, being available on all of them with a comparable experience on each. Once the path is paved by Xbox live it should be a lot easier to bring further applications into the Three Screens world, especially if they’re able to bring the .NET platform to those same platforms.
One of the big questions that looms over this rumour is how a PC will be capable of playing Xbox games, especially some of the more recent titles. Many of the games on the Xbox and Xbox360 make heavy use of the specific architecture of the platform in order to gain significant performance benefits. Whilst you could emulate the entire system in software it’s more than likely that any recent title would run quite poorly, to the point of not being playable. Taking this into consideration I believe it’s more likely then that, at least initially, the only games that will be available will be those developed on Microsoft’s XNA framework. It can be argued that most of the games built on this framework are more than likely already available on the PC (indeed this is the main reason many choose XNA in the first place) but since there’s no market currently the visibility of such games is a lot lower than it could be. Thus the introduction of Xbox Live (along with its Arcade section) coupled with the availability of XNA titles is a very real possibility for Windows 8, but how Microsoft will go about this remains to be seen.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft reacts to this rumour as whilst they’re not usually into playing the rumour game they’re definitely more loose lipped than say, their Cupertino counterparts. Personally I’m more excited about the possibility that Microsoft is pursuing their Three Screens vision with the beach front into this world being one of my passions. Whether this rumour has any shred of truth to it though remains to be seen and we could be waiting up until the betas before we know any more about it. Still with the amount of interest this has generated in such a short time it would be interesting if Microsoft didn’t pursue this at least in some fashion since it would be a massive step towards their platform unification strategy.
The last two years have seen a major shake up in the personal computing industry. Whilst I’m loathed to admit it Apple was the one leading the charge here, redefining the smart phone space and changing the way many people did the majority of their computing by creating the wildly successful niche of curated computing (read: tablets). It is then inevitable that many subsequent innovations from rival companies are seen as reactions to Apple’s advances, even if the steps that company is taking are towards a much larger and broader goal than competing in the same market.
I am, of course, referring to Microsoft’s Windows 8 which was just demoed recently.
There’s been quite a bit of news about the upcoming release of Windows 8 with many leaked screenshots and even leaked builds that gave us a lot of insight into what we can expect of the next version of Windows. For the most part the updates didn’t seem like anything revolutionary although things like portable desktops and a more integrated web experienced were looking pretty slick. Still Windows 7 was far from being revolutionary either but the evolution from Vista was more than enough to convince people that Microsoft was back on the right track and the adoption rates reflect that.
However the biggest shift that is coming with Windows 8 was known long before it was demoed: Windows 8 will run on ARM and other System on a Chip (SOC) devices. It’s a massive deviation from Microsoft’s current platform which is wholly x86/x86-64 based and this confirms Microsoft’s intentions to bring their full Windows experience to tablet and other low power/portable devices. The recent demo of the new operating system confirmed this with Windows 8 having both a traditional desktop interface that we’re all familiar with and also a more finger friendly version that takes all of its design cues from the Metro interface seen on all Windows Phone 7 devices.
Looking at all these changes you can’t help but think that they were all done in reaction to Apple’s dominance of the tablet space with their iPad. It’s true that a lot of the innovations Microsoft has done with Windows 8 mirror those of what Apple has achieved in the past year or so however since Windows 8 has been in development for much longer than that not all of them can be credited to Microsoft playing the me-too game. Realistically it’s far more likely that many of these innovations are Microsoft’s first serious attempts at realizing their three screens vision and many of the changes in Windows 8 support this idea.
A lot of critics think the idea of bringing a desktop OS to a tablet form factor is doomed for failure. The evidence to support that view is strong too since Windows 7 (and any other OS for that matter) tablet hasn’t enjoyed even a percentage of the success that the dedicated tablet OS’s have. However I don’t believe that Microsoft is simply making a play for the tablet market with Windows 8, what they’re really doing is providing a framework for building user experiences that remain consistent across platforms. The idea of being capable of completing any task whether you’re on your phone, TV or dedicated computing device (which can be a tablet) is what is driving Microsoft to develop Windows 8 they way they are. Windows Phone 7 was their first steps into this arena and their UI has been widely praised for its usability and design and Microsoft’s commitment to using it on Windows 8 shows that they are trying to blur the lines that current exist between the three screens. The potential for .NET applications to run on x86, ARM and other SOC platforms seals the deal, there is little doubt that Microsoft is working towards a ubiquitous computing platform.
Microsoft’s execution of this plan is going to be vital for their continued success. Whilst they still dominate the desktop market it’s being ever so slowly eroded away by the bevy of curated computing platforms that do everything users need them to do and nothing more. We’re still a long time away from everyone out right replacing all their PCs with tablets and smart phones but the writing is on the wall for a sea change in the way we all do our computing. Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s way of re-establishing themselves as the tech giant to beat and I’m sure the next year is going to be extremely interesting for fans and foes alike.
For all their faults Microsoft have done some really great work and brought a lot of innovative ideas to fruition. Sure their strategy of embrace, extend and extinguishrightfully earnt them the reputation of being an evil company but despite this they’ve continued to deliver products that are really head and shoulders above the competition. From emerging technologies like the Surfaceto dragging others kicking and screaming into the world of online game consoles Microsoft has shown that when they want to they can innovate just like anyone else can. One of those innovations that, in my opinion, hasn’t received the press it should is the idea of the Three Screens and a Cloud form of computing which Microsoft started talking about almost 2 years ago.
The idea itself is stunningly simple: that the computing experience between the three main screens a user has (their computer, phone and TV) should be connected and ubiquitous. Whilst I still detest using the word cloud computing for anything (it feels like magic hand waving) the idea of all these screens being connected to a persistent cloud back end unlocks potential for innovation on quite a large scale. The devil is in the details of course and whilst such an idea is something to behold the actual implementation of this is what will show whether or not Microsoft knows what it’s talking about, rather than just drumming up some hype with a new industry buzz term.
Microsoft is already making headway into implementing this idea with their Live Mesh range of online services. I’ve been a big user of their remote desktopfeatures that have allowed me to remote in via anywhere with a web browser. They’ve also been hard at work making their Office products more accessible through Office Web Apps, which provide a pretty good experience especially considering they’re free. Their current strategy for getting on the TV sees to be centered around improving the Xbox Live experience and integrating it with the upcoming mobile platform Windows Phone 7. Time will tell if they’ll be able to draw all of these platforms together to fully realise the Three Screens idea, but they’re well on their way to delivering such a service.
Stepping away from Microsoft’s work the idea of a computing experience being agnostic to the platform you’re on has been a fascination of mine for quite some time. You see I make my money based around virtualization which has its roots in the idea of removing dependency on a platform from the software. More recently I’ve been diving into the world of virtual desktops which give you the novel ability of taking your desktop session with you, needing only a USB key for the user. There are quite a few companies offering products that implement this idea but more recently some have taken it a step further like CITRIX and their search for a Nirvana Phone. Realistically I see no reason why you couldn’t interact with that same session directly on the phone or on a TV if you so desired, getting us dangerously close to realising the Three Screens idea.
Although Microsoft is credited with the soundbite that captures this idea they’re not the only ones working towards unifying a computing experience across platforms. Google has made serious inroads into the mobile sector and just this year announced that they would be coming to the last screen they had missed, the TV. They’ve also taken the first steps to integrating the phone and computer experiences with the Chrome to Phone extension for their browser. Whilst Apple had been some what lax about their foray into TV they have since revampedthe idea to be more like their other iOS based products, signalling that they too are looking to unify the user experience.
At it’s heart the notion of Three Screens is of freedom and ubiquity, with users data empowered through it’s ability to transcend restrictions that once plagued it. The true realisation of this idea is still yet to be seen but I know that the unification of the three key computing platforms is not far away. With so many big players vying for dominance I’m sure that we’ll see a platform war of the likes we’ve never seen before and hopefully from that the best products and services will arise victorious, to the benefit of us all.