With the future of Windows looking more focused on mobile, news stories have begun surfacing about a cloud powered version of Windows in the works. We look at how that might work, and how it would heighten the battle between Microsoft and Google.
Microsoft seems to have a big problem with Google. Whereas in years gone by the main rival to the Windows empire was Apple, that battle played itself out as Steve Jobs steered his company away from the desktop and instead focused on mobile platforms. Although Apple still sells a respectable number of laptops and iMacs, they are eclipsed by the iOS devices which now account for the majority of the company's considerable earnings.
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Microsoft has attempted to conquer mobile, even becoming a hardware manufacturer in the process, but so far this has been an expensive and not entirely successful venture. Of course, time will tell whether Windows Phone and Surface establish themselves, but there is so much ground to make up that it remains a colossal challenge.
During this shift in the technological sands a strangely vitriolic contest has flared up between Seattle's finest and search giant Google, one which might become even more caustic as the two go head to head on the desktop.
Rumours have started to appear from reliable sources that a new version of Windows could be on its way, one drastically different to those before. Now, before panic erupts that Microsoft is about to unleash another Windows 8-style attack on poor, innocent computer users, be reassured by the knowledge that this one probably won't invent an undecipherable interface that requires Jedi mind control to open the Control Panel. At least we hope not.
Windows Cloud is the new iteration that cranked the rumour mill into life at the end of April, and it could be a hugely significant step towards an online-orientated future for Windows. Although there are scant details to go on at the moment, early indications seem to suggest that it will be a streamlined version of the OS designed for internet-connected use at all times.
It could also be restricted in a similar fashion to the old Windows 7 Starter OS that appeared on netbooks a few years ago. The thought is that this particular version of Windows would be free and aimed squarely at the home user market, but with a notable caveat. A subscription model would allow users to unlock the full features of Windows (or at least some of them) thus making their machine more useful.
Whether this would also be accompanied by low-cost hardware that is subsidised by the Windows subscription is another possibility causing more speculation. Microsoft has dabbled in this type of inducement before, with Xbox 360s once being offered at discount rates when bought with special two-year subscriptions to Xbox Live Gold accounts in the US. The company also demonstrated an interest in always-on internet connections with its early Xbox One announcements, something that proved so unpopular with potential customers that Microsoft eventually relented and ditched the feature.
Office 365 has possibly paved the way for Windows Cloud, proving that subscriptions can work if they are priced correctly. Of course as long as you have an internet connection you could also use Office Online for free, something that might make more sense with the low powered machines that we'd naturally assume Cloud would run on.
How the OS itself might work is still a complete mystery, with thin-client (most of the heavy work happening on the server end rather than locally on your machine) looking a likely candidate. But how that would affect the user experience very much depends on whether you'd be able to install software locally, what kind of services would be available offline, and how much all this would cost.
After all, most people are happy with how laptops work now, so why change it? Would it even be an x86 version of Windows, or could Microsoft take the opportunity to switch to ARM processors for longer battery life, no fans, and cheaper components? So far Microsoft has not commented on this potentially interesting development, which is not unusual in itself, but if Windows Cloud turns out to be true then it could put the company in an awkward situation. Inexpensive, low-powered, internet-centric machines already exist in the form of Google's Chromebook - see HP Chromebook 11 review. A product that Microsoft has been actively bashing for the last few months.
Its Scroogled advertising campaign in the US aggressively mocks the Chromebook for its simple OS and internet-dependent functionality. In one particular ad it has minor TV celebrities saying that the Chomebook isn't even a real laptop, although the rationale for this boils down to the fact that the device doesn't run Windows or Office - Linux and Mac users might take umbrage with this classification. A key aspect the ad fails to mention is that Chromebooks are cheap, cheerful, and designed to be an almost disposable device while still remaining very useful. Offline capabilities have slowly improved, with Google Docs now working without an Internet connection, and to be honest with so much of modern computing revolving around the Internet for everyday use this is becoming something of a moot point.
After an inauspicious start, Chromebooks are beginning to gain traction in education markets and pose an interesting alternative for those looking to buy an inexpensive laptop with which to browse the web, email, converse on social media, and do basic office tasks. Sales figures are still miniscule compared to Windows machines, but this year has seen a change in attitude as many traditional PC manufacturers have begun to introduce Chromebooks into their line. Toshiba, Samsung, Acer, HP, and Dell all offer at least one of the Google powered devices, with rumours of others joining the ranks in the months ahead.
This makes sense as the web has developed considerably in the five years since the Chromebook first appeared, and with it the concept of an Internet-focussed machine has gone from hair-brained to actually decent. If Microsoft are to compete in this area then it will have to differentiate its product from the one it's been trying to convince everyone is nothing but a toy. Full versions of Windows running on low powered, low cost machines aren't exactly an attractive proposition, with netbooks (although selling well for a time) proving how compromised that experience can be. So a light-weight version, aided by the power of the cloud, would be a far more attractive option, especially for people now having to upgrade from XP but not enamoured by the Windows 8 interface and negative public perception.
How Windows can transition, at least in one flavour, to a cloud-powered OS is going to be causing sleepless nights for developers in Redmond. But if they get it right, and Microsoft continues to offer traditional versions of the OS alongside, then it has the potential to be a fascinating glimpse into the future. Satya Nadella, Microsoft's new CEO, recently outlined his plans for the road ahead, in which he stated that it would be a 'cloud first' and 'device first' company. Now, while these may well be buzzwords that sound modern and progressive, the concept of the company moving away from the operating system on every desk in every home and instead embracing the possibilities of the web and how powerful its software can be across a multitude of devices, is one we welcome.