Windows 8: Game-Changer?
Digital Foundry on Microsoft's plans for the new age of technological convergence
According to its Build Windows developer event site, Microsoft changed the PC with the release of Windows 95, but more dramatically, it says that its next OS will change everything. Is this another example of traditional PR hyperbole, or is there any substance to the hype?
Windows 8 will launch in a time of unprecedented transition for the computer and video games business, and while we've yet to see just how revolutionary the new OS will be, it's clear that Microsoft means business; it has serious plans not just for computers, but a wide range of different devices. The amount of power being packed into new tablets, smartphones and indeed the next generation consoles means that virtually any modern computing hardware will be able to run a full-fat Windows operating system, and Microsoft is looking to capitalise on that.
As president of the Windows Phone Division, Andy Lees said at the recent Worldwide Partner Conference, "You can have full PC compute power available in whatever form factor you like. We won't have an ecosystem for PCs, and one for phones, and one for tablets - they'll all come together."
"You can have full PC compute power available in whatever form factor you like. We won't have an ecosystem for PCs, and one for phones, and one for tablets - they'll all come together."
Andy Lees, Microsoft
Lees went on to say that the ARM demos of Windows 8 had run on motherboards smaller than the typical smartphone's, and that the company was looking for "coherence and consistency" across devices, "particularly with Xbox".
Over and above this was the proclamation that this harmonisation would be about far more than just a common user interface. Key technological components such as Internet Explorer 10 would also be shared across devices. This is a seriously big deal for Microsoft, and a major change in strategy.
There is no technological reason that explains the lack of an internet browser on the Xbox 360: it's all about preserving the profitability of the Windows business. The platform holder loses money on every Xbox 360 it sells (or at least it used to), while conversely it makes money - and lots of it - with its operating systems. The idea of sharing such a major component, and giving a key element of desktop functionality to a games console is a seriously big deal with potentially large financial ramifications.
But even from what little we've seen of Windows 8 so far, it's clear that this is going to be a remarkable product and potentially a real game-changer. The recent developer diary, showcasing a new, tile-based system surprised many with the way it allowed for intuitive and seamless user interactions via multi-touch. It demonstrates conclusively that the ways and means by which we will operate our computers will change dramatically over the coming years, and that we may well be seeing the beginning of the end of the traditional desktop interface. Having already shown a prototype of the new OS running on both x86 and ARM architecture, it also affirms that Microsoft is seriously addressing the exploding tablet market, currently dominated by iOS and Android.
If we are looking at a convergence in technology, we may also be seeing something similar happening with the basic interface too. At the moment, PC gaming is dominated by the mouse and keyboard combo - still the most highly precise form of interface around for both work and play. Apple has already come up with its touch-based solution for the future - the Magic Trackpad, essentially a much larger version of the typical laptop interface, and probably the best contender for a unifying interface between tablets and desktop PCs. Microsoft may well be continuing to explore Kinect, but until there is a more robust iteration that can accurately track precise finger movement (and that can work in a typical office-type environment) it's difficult to imagine that Microsoft's z-cam tech will migrate from the lounge where it sits attached to its home console.
Andy Lees's comments on the importance of Xbox to the next operating system are also intriguing. There have been plenty of rumours about current generation Xbox 360 integration into Windows 8 - even down to a suggested leak of a subscription-based service that would allow 360 titles to run on Windows 8-equipped PCs.
In many ways, it sounds like a killer feature, and there are already enough similarities in place to give some level of plausibility to the theory. Games for Windows Live already gives access to some or all of the Xbox Live network architecture and peripherals such as joypads can be shared between 360 and PC. In theory a virtual machine could be created on Windows 8 to run 360 native code, and the task is made easier by virtue of the fact that Microsoft dictates that DirectX is used on its console. The task of remapping DX9 calls to DX11 wouldn't be that onerous, while the shader format is well understood and could be recompiled to DX bytecode for native drivers to re-optimise for hardware.
There are many challenges however. The Xbox 360's 3.2GHz triple-core PowerPC core, with support for six hardware threads would prove to be very difficult to emulate on all but the highest end PCs, and Microsoft is on the record as saying that Windows 8's system requirements will be the same as Windows 7, if not even more modest making the emulation ability useful only to those with the most powerful systems, who are unlikely to be swayed by this functionality when native PC games would run that much better. On top of that, unless Microsoft plans to stream video OnLive style, a scheme like this would prove to be a system compatibility nightmare.
There are also somewhat more mundane practicalities to consider too. Xbox 360 uses a bespoke disc file system that purposely cannot be read on PC for anti-piracy reasons. While the 360 itself uses off-the-shelf DVD-ROM tech, the drives use custom firmware to read the discs, and it's hard to imagine Microsoft creating an all-purpose driver that would circumvent its own protection.
Despite the talk of a subscription, the basic business argument doesn't really make much sense either. Microsoft has lost (or invested, depending on how you want to look at it) billions of dollars in the Xbox 360, and now, as the console matures and the tech becomes very cheap to produce, is the time for the platform holder to claw back as much of that money as possible.
Make no mistake though: Xbox is such a powerful gaming brand that Microsoft would be insane not to integrate it in some shape or form into its next PC operating system, and the opportunities to make money there are mouth-watering. The only question is how bold the company will be in bringing its two brands together? Historically it seems to have done as much as possible to keep them apart.
In many ways, Windows 8 is more than just a new operating system. It is a reflection of the exciting times ahead as computer and video game technology evolves and diversifies.
In the here and now, we have the situation whereby gamertags can be shared between Xbox 360, PC and Windows Phone 7. There's nothing to stop you playing the same game through on Games for Windows Live and Xbox 360 and accrue double the amount of gamerscore. However, Microsoft must have taken notice of the Steamworks integration in Portal 2 on PlayStation 3. In the age of digital delivery, why not offer bundle deals on the same game running on Xbox and PC and offer cloud-save facilities to allow you to switch formats and play where you like?
There's also nothing from an architectural standpoint to stop cross-format online gameplay either, particularly with co-op games where differences in control schemes needn't impact the quality of the gameplay experience for any of the participants - as is the case with Portal 2. Microsoft has already experimented with this to some degree (Shadowrun, for instance) - but the question is how much the platform holder is willing to push the envelope, and to what extend the "walled garden" of Xbox Live could be pulled down to accommodate a cross-platform future.
With the pace that mobile gaming technology is moving at, we could even see triple-format support between Xbox, PC and smartphones/tablets. Even on current generation mobile technology we are beginning to see high-end engines running - we all know about Unreal Engine 3 being repurposed for portable gaming, but Capcom appears to have its MT Framework technology up and running on the next generation Kal-El quad core Tegra chip, with Lost Planet 2 already being demoed by NVIDIA.
Sure, it's not as pretty as the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game, lacking many effects and possessing lower poly 3D models, but the fact that the engine is running at all is something of a miracle, and with Windows 8 likely to appear in 2012 or 2013, we can expect another major leap in mobile computational power by then. Even in the here and now, PlayStation Vita demonstrates spectacularly what is possible in a small, power-efficient, portable design.
Probably Microsoft's most tightly guarded secret right now is how closely the next generation Xbox will integrate with Windows 8. There are a few "no brainers" we can definitely factor into the equation. Firstly, the tile-based interface we've seen working in the Windows 8 prototype and indeed in Windows Phone 7 will almost certainly be utilised: we have already seen some semblance of that work at E3 where the brand new Kinect and voice-driven Xbox 360 dashboard was shown (note also the arrival of Bing).
Secondly, the recently revealed statistic that 40 per cent of Xbox 360 usage is for non-games functions such as streaming video and music will almost certainly factor into the make-up of the new machine. Microsoft is big on IPTV and media delivery, and it wouldn't surprise us at all if the current dual SKU approach with 360 is re-purposed with the next-gen equivalent of the Core/Arcade aimed at this market while the Premium model aggressively targets hardcore gamers. Microsoft will be looking to dominate this market by providing the ability to sync media between computers, consoles, smartphones and tablets - all unified by Windows 8.
In many ways, Windows 8 is more than just a new operating system. It is a reflection of the exciting times ahead as computer and video game technology evolves and diversifies, presenting a range of exciting new possibilities and ever-more powerful gaming technologies. Quite how much of a leap it represents remains unclear, but if - as reported - Microsoft is even considering retiring the Windows brand, we should expect a truly fundamental shift away from the basic expectations we have of an operating system and it will be fascinating to see how its competitors react.
Microsoft isn't proffering any details on when Windows 8 will be released, but we should get our next look at the OS during September's BUILD developer conference. Will it "change everything"...? Only time will tell.