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Does Virtualization give Microsoft a chance to start over with “Windows 8”?

August 29th, 2009

My recent experience upgrading to Snow Leopard on my Macbook vs. upgrading to Windows 7 on my desktop made me think about the future of Microsoft’s operating system.  Apple has taken a couple steps in the recent past with clean breaks from previous architectures: both the PowerPC to Intel transition and now the 32-bit to 64-bit transition.  The latter is not as clear cut as the former, but nonetheless Apple doesn’t seem to keep backward compatibility in mind as much as Microsoft.  With Microsoft, backward compatibility is both a useful feature and a bane on their developers because of driver and other issues.

I believe that Microsoft might be able to recreate their entire kernel (get rid of the Registry!) for Windows 8 (or whatever it’s called) and still maintain backward compatibility.  With the current (and I’m assuming all future) generations of Intel CPUs, Virtualization is supported out of the box.  I’m speaking of desktop CPUs not as sure about the Mobile versions.  For instance, my three year old Core 2 Duo E6700 supports the Virtualization extensions with no trouble.  What this does is let me use XP Mode in Windows 7 like I used to use Virtual PC.  However, Microsoft has mimic’d the Unity mode concept from VMWare Fusion to allow you to run applications in XP mode but hide the virtual OS running in the background.  This allows the end user to use legacy applications fairly flawlessly without having to know that they are using an age old operating system.

So project out 3 years into the future:  processors get more capable (I hesitate to say “faster”, but lets assume more cores, etc.), RAM sizes on desktops go up (8 GB is rapidly become cheap enough for new PCs) and Developers get more and more experience with multi-threaded and multi-core software development.

If this is the case, then Microsoft has a chance here to completely re-architect Windows 8 from the ground up (shades of Longhorn).  They can get rid of all the legacy vestiges that cause issues and offer compatibility for legacy applications thru an XP Mode (though it will be Win7 Mode) like capability.  This would let users runs all old apps in a virtualized environment, taking advantage of the increases in RAM and CPU, while also creating a brand new OS.  I think device drivers will still be an issue, but Microsoft would be justified in breaking from the past in the interest of future efficiency.  I’m going thru this with Windows 7 and 64-bit drivers vs. 32-bit drivers (and it’s been relatively painless so far).

It will be interesting to see what they choose to do, but the competition created by Apple can only be a good thing!

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