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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.

Microsoft's showcase for the new tile-based touch interface for Windows 8 is radical leap beyond the company's traditional operating systems - it's created for a future where practically all modern computing devices have the horsepower to run a full-fat Windows experience. Tablets, smartphones, consoles and PCs - the potential market is vast.

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.

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Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.