Microsoft Makes Its Move

Today, the final piece of Microsoft’s strategy slotted into place. They announced Windows Phone 8, their new OS for phones. It’ll still have that pretty tiled “Metro” interface, but to the consternation of those few people currently developing apps for Windows Phone 7, just about everything else is changed utterly. We’ll see why later.

And that’s not even the most unexpected part of the new strategy. Yesterday they tore up the playbook and actually made a thing. Of course the software giant has done hardware before, almost from the start indeed. They produced their own mice to make sure the peripheral vital to Windows would be standardised and cheap. There was the highly successful Xbox, and the highly unsuccessful Zune. But this is the first time Microsoft has made their own… Laptop? Tablet?

A little from column A and a little from column B. Microsoft have decided, reasonably I think, that somewhere between the tablet and the ultra-light notebook there’s a product waiting to happen. And they call it Surface.

Which is a little confusing, because up till now Microsoft Surface was an intelligent multi-user tabletop wholly unrelated to this device (and now renamed PixelSense). Maybe they envisage integrating the two technologies at some future date, but really it seems they decided Surface was too cool a name for anything except their coolest product. The nerds.

Even more confusingly, Surface comes in two versions. Both are slim 10.6″ tablets. Both have a light and attractive magnesium alloy chassis. Both have a neat kickstand that props it at a good viewing angle. Both can use intelligent covers that attach with magnets. Shades of the iPad’s Smart Cover perhaps, but these are also keyboards, instantly transforming tablet into laptop. They come in a thin touch version and a slightly thicker one with some key travel, and both can be used with either Surface model.

So how then do they differ? In a word, fundamentally. The slightly more svelte of the two uses a RISC processor from ARM, like just about every tablet or smartphone on the market, and runs only “Metro” apps. It does have a desktop, but only as an environment for editing multiple documents with a built-in, touch-friendly version of Office. No conventional desktop software runs on this, so it is very much to the PC as the iPad is to the Mac. And much as the the iPad has a special, much-reduced version of OS X called iOS, so the Surface has Windows RT, a stripped-down variant so named because it only runs apps written for WinRT.

That should make the confusion complete… I’ll go over this again because it’s going to come up a lot in the next few years and you won’t regret getting it straight now: Windows RT, Microsoft’s operating system for ARM processors, is called that because it only runs WinRT.

So what the hell is WinRT? It’s the new Windows “runtime”, a programming environment providing simplified access to the hardware’s resources – memory, camera, sensors, network and so on. Apps are created to run in this environment.

OK, what about the other model, sometimes referred to as Surface Pro? It looks very similar to the basic version. The only different dimension is thickness – the Pro has an extra 4.2mm to accommodate (among other things) an Intel Core i5 processor, just like you’d find on a good laptop or desktop PC. So it has a perfectly normal version of Windows 8 for its operating system and can run all traditional Windows programs. In many ways this incarnation of Surface is simply a reboot of the slate-style Tablet PC, such as those made by Motion.

Except of course that it also has WinRT, and so can run just the same apps as the ARM version in just the same Metro touch interface. This then is the key idea: WinRT works on both the Intel hardware architecture and on ARM. The same apps will run on tablets, laptops and desktops, no matter who makes the chips.

So have you guessed? Yes, Windows Phone 8 also has WinRT. That’s why they had to rebuild it from the ground up. Before, the phone and desktop versions of Windows had been pretty much completely incompatible. From this on they will share a lot in common. The very same apps – with suitable adjustment for screen size, etc. – will run on phones as well now.

But wait, there’s more!

Another of Microsoft’s recent flurry of announcements was SmartGlass, which helps integrate tablets and phones with the Xbox and so with your TV. The possibilities are intriguing, especially if – as I think is a completely safe prediction – WinRT comes to the Xbox as well. No one else can offer a single platform for developers like that – phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and perhaps game consoles, all running the same apps. For the first time in years, Microsoft look like a company with a vision.