Place yourself, for a moment, in Microsoft's position. You're a multibillion-dollar international corporation that made its name (and dominating market share) in desktop operating systems and productivity software. Along the way, you developed a game console that's managed to hold its own against Sony and Nintendo, along with a variety of other products to multitudinous to name here.
But things have been a little shaky of late, thanks to a rising emphasis on mobile devices and hardware. While rivals such as Apple and Google have profited enormously from consumer and business interest in smartphones and tablets, Microsoft is widely perceived as struggling to find solid footing in this new paradigm.
As smartphones rapidly evolved into handheld PCs, they made Microsoft's Windows Mobile franchise look increasingly antiquated. Microsoft eventually responded in 2010 with the release of Windows Phone 7, a mobile software platform built from the ground up. Windows Phone 7 aggregates applications and Web content into a set of subject-specific Hubs, differentiating itself from the grid-like screens of individual apps that define both the iPhone and Google Android.
Yet the mobile market continues to evolve, this time with tablets. In the wake of Apple's blockbuster success with the iPad, various manufacturers are countering with tablets running Google Android. Later in April, Research In Motion will issue the BlackBerry-branded PlayBook, and Hewlett-Packard is prepping tablets for summer that run its recently acquired webOS.
So far, Microsoft has refrained from a hard push of its own into the consumer tablet market. And the company continues to hold a dominant position in traditional operating systems, with Windows 7 selling at a healthy clip to both consumers and businesses. The tech landscape is in rapid flux, however, which makes a viable cross-platform strategy more viable than ever.
Enter the next version of Windows, often referred to as "Windows 8."
Bloggers Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott, in a series of April postings on Rivera's Within Windows blog, have described the various features of what they claim is an early build of Windows 8: an Office-style ribbon integrated into Windows Explorer, complete with tools for viewing libraries, manipulating images and managing drive assets; an unlock screen that harkens to the "Metro" design style already present in Windows Phone 7; an "immersive" user interface and a built-in PDF reader they call "Modern Reader."
"Modern Reader is the first actual AppX application we've uncovered," they wrote in an April 4 posting. "AppX is a new type of packaged application model in Windows 8, and it very closely resembles Windows Phone 7 application packages."
Because of that, the two surmise "that the AppX application type could be common to both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 (codenamed -Apollo'), providing developers with a way to write applications that target and can transition between a variety of devices, including traditional PCs, tablets, and phones."
Although Microsoft is silent on its roadmap for Windows, the company has made it very clear that it intends the next version of the operating system to support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. In turn, that would give Microsoft increased leverage for porting Windows onto tablets and more mobile form-factors, currently the prime market for ARM offerings.
The Windows 8 unlock screen detailed on the Within Windows blog hints at such a cross-platform offering: "The display includes the time, day of week, the date (month and day), and icons for power management (for portable machines only) and ease of access. Perhaps more will be added or present on other device types in the future."
Assume these features will make their way into the final version of the next Windows, backed by "AppX" as an application model. Assume that Rivera and Thurrott are correct, that they hint at a Windows supportive of a number of form-factors, from small tablets all the way up to desktops. Assume that Microsoft is working on a new version of Windows Phone that closely intermeshes with the mother-ship Windows franchise.
Take all those together, and you have Microsoft's vision for the future of Windows. In many ways, it represents an expansion, or an evolution, on a similar vision already put forward by Apple, Google and Hewlett-Packard.
Apple's vision centers on iOS, which powers the company's tablets and mobile devices. Its desktops and laptops continue to be powered by Mac OS X, but iOS exerts a strengthening gravity even on that traditional paradigm: Apple recently introduced the Mac App Store, the PC equivalent of its mobile App Store.
Meanwhile, HP plans to bring webOS not only to tablets and smartphones, but also PCs. "The webOS is an unbelievably attractive piece of technology in that it can interconnect seamlessly a number of various devices," CEO Leo Apotheker said in response to eWEEK's question at a March 14 press conference. "It is simply an outstanding Web operating system."
HP eventually hopes to sell 100 million webOS-enabled devices per year, as part of its efforts to establish what Apotheker termed a "global platform."
And although initially established as a smartphone operating system, Google's Android has been making inroads into larger form-factors, notably tablets, including the 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom and the upcoming, larger Samsung Galaxy Tab. The tablet-optimized "Honeycomb" Android differs considerably in its format and detailing from the version running on smartphones, but many of the fundamentals remain the same.
In other words, cross-platform operating systems seem to be the name of the coming game. And all indications seem to be that Microsoft is readying its own response. The question is, what form will that response take? And what types of devices will support Windows 8 when it hits the market, most likely (based on current rumors) at some point in 2012?