Microsoft’s Windows Phone exec shuffle yesterday could have significant implications on harmonizing the codebase for Windows 8 and the smartphone OS, it’s been suggested, amid long-running rumors of boosted kernel efficiency. CEO Steve Ballmer described Andy Lees switch from Windows Phone chief “to a new role working for me on a time-critical opportunity focused on driving maximum impact in 2012 with Windows Phone and Windows 8” as vital to the “tremendous potential” of the two platforms; The Register attempts to join the dots, pointing to “FrankenOS” rumors around Microsoft’s ongoing Menlo project.
Ballmer was coy with details as to exactly what the “tremendous potential” Microsoft had identified could be, though the company has worked hard to bring the disparate elements of its PC, smartphone and gaming platforms closer together over the past few months. Last week, the company released a Windows Phone Xbox Controller app as part of its Xbox 360 update, turning the smartphone into a remote control for navigating streaming TV services and more.
However, the suspicion is that Lees’ new role goes a lot deeper than replacing your IR remote with your phone. Microsoft is tipped to be junking the existing Windows Phone kernel – brought over from Windows Embedded – and replacing it with code from Windows 8 in the upcoming Windows Phone 8 “Apollo” release expected in 2012. Notorious Windows-watcher Mary Jo Foley points to speculation that the new kernel is in fact “MinWin”, described as “the detangled core Windows kernel/file system/networking stack code.”
Borrowing only the MinWin kernel, rather than more far-reaching code, from Windows 8 would certainly help clear up questions around timing for a 2012 release, but more importantly it could deliver a significant boost in functionality and cross-platform coding simplicity. While it would not be a case of Windows 8 running on a phone – something hardly user-friendly, given elements like screen sizing and input options – but, as former Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Hal Berenson wrote recently, reducing software engineering costs since desktop and mobile teams could work on a common kernel, along with allowing for boosted performance on hardware that would struggle to give a decent experience if, say, running Android.
Down the line, Berenson continues, hybrid devices such as Motorola attempted with the ATRIX could deliver on their full potential, offering Windows Phone and full Windows depending on peripherals and other elements “If you have the common kernel” he argues, “then you could have high-end smartphones that shipped with both the Windows 8+ user experience and Windows Phone 8+ user experiences and swap between them based on what peripherals were available.”
Microsoft is yet to fully capitalize on having a foot in mobile, desktop and gaming, partly because of the different core software each of the divisions have at their heart. Back in the days of Windows Mobile, one of the core messages about the platform was its interoperability with Windows and the “familiarity” of the user experience; that never panned out into much more than marketing hype. Ballmer’s “tremendous potential with Windows Phone and Windows 8” may well be the most legitimate expression of that so far, assuming Lees and his new team can pull it off.