Developers clamor for unified dev tools for Microsoft's 3 OSs

Analysts expect a long-term integration of smartphone/tablet/desktop OSs

Should Microsoft merge its smartphone and tablet/laptop/desktop operating systems into one substantial OS?

It's not just a theoretical question prompted by an older "write once, run anywhere" development mindset. Merging the Windows Phone OS with the Windows OS and Windows RT OS could give Microsoft a boost in attracting more developers and, ultimately, improving its market share for smartphones and tablets, analysts told Computerworld. The longtime desktop leader has been late to both smartphones and tablets and is struggling to garner more than its 6% share in the mobile market, according to IDC and Gartner.

Meanwhile, four Windows developers said they want more development tools in common across all three Windows platforms. A single OS would not be as important to them, as there will always be differences in devices, they said. Microsoft said that it already provides substantial code that can be shared across its OSs and that it pursues alignment wherever it's practical.

"At some point, I do think it's important to bring the OSs together, although that's a long ways away," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC. "It's a fair amount of work and even then you won't ever combine them completely."

Carolina Milanesi at Gartner had a different take. "I find the whole idea of 'design once and deploy to many' a little simplistic and to some extent set to achieve mediocrity rather than excellence," she said.

Despite Milanesi's reservations, Gartner forecast that the Windows OSs will merge whenever Microsoft releases Windows 9, possibly in the 2015-16 timeframe, said Ken Dulaney, also a Gartner analyst. The primary evidence that Microsoft is set to merge the OSs is today's common Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 kernel, he said.

Background

Microsoft's operating systems for its smartphones, tablets and desktops run on the same underlying kernel but still have significant differences.

Those differences mean that app developers need to write separate code for Windows Phone 8 (for smartphones), Windows 8 (for laptops, desktops and X86 tablets) and Windows RT (for ARM tablets). The biggest differences in code relate to screen sizes and resolutions of the various devices, ranging from a 3.5-in. smartphone, a 10-in. (or bigger) tablet or laptop, to a much bigger desktop display. Windows Phone also has a phone calling API (application programming interface) that is handled differently in Windows 8 if a developer wants to build an Internet calling application.

Today's separate Microsoft operating systems also mean that apps customers usually need to buy separate apps of the same game or app title for use on Microsoft's different platforms. For example, at a Microsoft demonstration at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February, a marketing official boasted how Windows apps can run on different platforms, such as an Xbox, Windows Phone 8 smartphone and a Windows 8 laptop. But the official conceded that he had to buy three versions of the game Skulls of the Shogun for those three platforms, totaling $25, instead of just one version that would run on all three.

Windows 8.1 preview coming late June

The long-term issue of integrating Microsoft's OSs goes beyond changes expected in Windows 8.1, which Microsoft has teased for public preview on June 26 at its BUILD developer conference.

Meanwhile, a major concern for Microsoft has been a relative shortage of mobile apps, especially when compared to Apple's iOS and Android. The Windows Phone Store has about 145,000 apps and Windows Store has more than 70,000, Microsoft confirmed this week, but both Google's Play store and Apple's App Store have more than 800,000 apps.

To increase the number of Microsoft apps, Dulaney said it would generally help developers if they can run a single app across platforms for less maintenance. Those developers would still have to work on rendering an app for a different screen size, which Dulaney said can be done in a single development platform but would require training developers on the proper methodology.

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