Twenty long years ago, Microsoft raided the near-corpse of the struggling minicomputer maker DEC, taking, among other things, Dave Cutler and a cadre of his closest friends and coworkers. Cutler was frustrated when DEC cancelled the microkernel-based OS he was working on, and Microsoft offered the cure: a chance to design its own next-generation OS, called NT (for New Technology).
Early NT versions were based on OS/2 because of Microsoft's then-partnership with IBM, but with that friendship faltering as DOS/Windows took off, NT became Windows NT, eventually adopting the same look and feel as DOS-based versions of Windows.
Though similar looking, NT was a radical departure from Windows. It was designed to be platform agnostic, for starters, and early versions targeted Alpha, MIPS, and PowerPC platforms in addition to the more common Intel x86 chipset used in mainstream PCs. It was a fully 32-bit OS from the get-go, with none of the weird memory management issues of DOS/Windows, and it was well-designed, and componentized into logical subsystems.
For years, Microsoft developed DOS/Windows and NT concurrently but separately, with the former generally targeting consumers and the latter addressing the workstation and then general-purpose business market. NT always came in both client and server versions, with the latter moving upmarket very quickly and usurping expensive UNIX-based servers as the mainstream platform for business and then data center computing.
Eventually, of course, things changed, as they must. Over time, the cross-platform prowess of NT fell by the wayside as supported architectures fell out of favor in the marketplace. This allowed Microsoft to improve the performance of the underlying system -- often by using low-level, platform-dependent code -- and its compatibility with DOS/Windows applications, services, and drivers.
With DOS/Windows too insecure and fragile to form the basis of its future computing platform, Microsoft worked then to make NT more accessible and acceptable for consumers. First, the NT branding was removed in Windows 2000 -- a decision I still feel weird about -- and then the DOS/Windows line was killed off forever in Windows XP, which featured both consumer and business versions but was based fully on the NT code base.
Since then, NT -- sorry, "Windows" -- has had good times (Windows 7) and bad (Windows Vista), but it's the stuff that happened below the surface that matters more to me. Not surprisingly, NT creator Dave Cutler played a big role in what is arguably the most important PC-related change in the past decade when he backed AMD's supposedly unsophisticated x64 platform over Intel's Itanium. The result was a cataclysmic shift for the industry, and today all of the PCs we use are in fact based on this 64-bit environment. The changeover was so seamless, few seemed to even notice.
On the bad news front, NT was compromised by the arbitrary addition of Internet Explorer into its core code base, a marketing decision that landed Microsoft in antitrust hot water but more importantly also triggered years of after-the-fact bug and security fixes that we're still reeling from today. And with Windows/NT just running on x86/x64 platforms for basically a decade now (I'll ignore the Itanium holdout stuff just as customers did), it's been fine-tuned to run best on that one system, a far cry from NT's early cross-platform days.
Today, however, NT is on the rebound. And ironically, with Dave Cutler off doing mysterious work on the next Xbox after a stint with Windows Azure, Microsoft's cloud-based OS, we have a most unusual outsider to thank.
That outsider, of course, is Apple.
In 2010, Apple surprised virtually no one by releasing the iPad, a device that is essentially an iPod touch with a 10-inch screen. The iPad doesn't seem like a big deal on paper, but as with all truly great ideas, what really happened is quite a bit different from what the pundits -- including, yes, yours truly -- expected. You see, the iPad has been an incredible success. And it's touched off a computing renaissance in which consumers are flocking to these simpler devices or more complex PCs.
iPads aren't less expensive than PCs -- the average selling price of a laptop computer right now is about $450, below the starting price of the iPad, which runs from $500 to $830 -- and this in no small way contributed to a broad misunderstanding of how successful the device would be. But iPads are significantly simpler than PCs. And the key bit is that, for most people, they do everything expected of a more complex PC, but in a friendlier, touch-centric way.
Microsoft isn't stupid. Seeing the impact the iPad was having in the market -- it quickly killed off the market for low-end netbook computers and is currently starting to eat into traditional PC and Mac sales -- the software giant began considering how it could adapt Windows, based on the ever-versatile NT code base -- to combat the iPad. And the solution it came up with looks like a winner. More to the point, it signals a resurgence in what makes NT great. Or, as I think of it, what makes NT, NT.
In the waning days of Windows 7 development, Microsoft decided it would once again open up Windows to cross-platform development and port its next OS, Windows 8, to ARM. That version of Windows 8, called Windows on ARM or WOA, will be specially tuned to run well on iPad-like tablets that are thin and light and inexpensive. But they'll offer the full Windows 8 user experience, with the new Metro-style Start screen and a limited Explorer desktop for file and task management, device interoperability, and the desktop versions of Internet Explorer 10 and Office 15, both of which will come for free with such devices.
You can read more about these developments in my recent article, " WOA! Windows 8 on ARM Revealed." But there are two key points I'd like to make within the context of NT and its legacy. First, the return to a more architecture-independent version (or, in the case of ARM, versions) of Windows is exciting and necessary, and it better positions this system for future evolutions that we can't yet imagine. Though he's working on Xbox vNext somewhere in a secret location right now, I bet Mr. Cutler smiles a bit to himself whenever he considers this most welcome change.
Second, some of the changes in WOA -- or what critics would call limitations -- are in fact consistent with Microsoft's long-standing policy of removing legacy technologies and features from Windows when it makes sense to do so. And shedding this technological deadwood is also healthy for the platform. For example, as we moved from x86 (32-bit) to x64 (64-bit) PCs, we lost some legacy deadwood in the form of 16-bit code and driver compatibility, all while gaining better inherent security. With ARM-based WOA systems, a similar change is occurring. And where Microsoft giveth, it also taketh away.
The big bit, of course, is what's missing. And it's a doozie: Although WOA devices will include the legacy desktop, no current x86/x64 software applications or utilities can be ported to this new platform, ever. Microsoft will only allow new Metro-style apps, from itself and third parties, as well as the aforementioned built-in desktop applications, which including IE 10 and Office 15. That's it.
But what we gain in the transition is simpler, smaller, cleaner, and more efficient. WOA systems will be smaller and lighter than Intel-type devices and will offer better battery life. ARM makers insist they'll be cheaper, too. And the resulting Windows 8 devices will be more easily supported because they won't suffer from the wellspring of security problems that have dogged PCs for years. Sure, you can't port that LOB app to WOA. But you also can't port viruses or malware.
The best news is that we'll have choices. In cases where a full-feature PC or device with backward compatibility is required, there will be tons of Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs from which to choose. But if you can do without the backward compatibility stuff, you'll be rewarded with a superior system that brings the best of both worlds: the style and grace of the iPad combined with the manageability of the Windows 8 environment.
WOA is possible only because of Windows' inherent NT-ness, a lingering advantage that many users either never knew about or forgot about altogether. But with WOA, it's NT all over again. And yes, that's a good thing. A very good thing indeed.