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.
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.