Windows 12 and AI: a coming boon or boondoggle?

Microsoft is making a heavy push into AI and promising it will radically change how Windows works. But is that more hype and hope than reality?

pixelated clouds reflecting on building windows

Microsoft has gone all in on artificial intelligence (AI), pouring $10 billion in the OpenAI startup — and that’s just the opening gambit. Expect many more billions to follow.

There’s good reason for that investment. AI will reap many billions in revenue for the company, particularly its cloud business. Microsoft already has released a public preview of its cloud-based Azure OpenAI service which will allow businesses to use AI without having to build infrastructure. Yesterday it unveiled plans to add AI to Bing in a bid to take market share from Google. And it will probably be built into the guts of Office to improve user productivity.

But keep in mind we’re now at the peak of AI hype, that point in a new technology’s life cycle when there are sky-high predictions but few clear benefits and even less revenue. It’s when tech companies promise the moon and the stars without having to back it up with down-to-earth realities.

And so, Microsoft isn’t content to just make predictions how AI will transform the cloud, Internet search or productivity tools. It’s also boasting about how AI will change Windows, notably the work-in-progress Windows 12.

Just consider what Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay, in charge of Windows and its hardware,  said at the CES conference in early January: “Artificial Intelligence is going to reinvent how you do everything on Windows, quite literally.

“Like these large generative models, think language models, code gen models, image models; these models are so powerful, so delightful, so useful, personal…, It's gonna need an operating system that blurs the line between cloud and edge, and that's what we are doing right now.”

(Bonus points for anyone who can decipher Panay’s word salad and explain how AI models can possibly be called “delightful.”)

What might all this AI magic do on Windows 12? Panay offered only a single example: Zoom meetings would be better because AI will provide better Zoom backgrounds, and make it appear that your eyes are looking directly at the camera, even when they’re wandering off to the side.

Ten billion dollars for prettier Zoom meetings? Be still my beating heart!

It’s likely Microsoft is cooking up things more impressive than that in its labs. But those things might not make it into Windows. To understand why, let’s first look at how AI might work in Windows 12.

Windows AI chips

Microsoft hasn’t detailed exactly how AI will integrate into Windows 12, but we're getting hints of a potential roadmap.  Chipmakers right now are making and releasing PC chips that include dedicated hardware devoted to AI. AMD has released the first ones, its Ryzen 7040 series. In fact, Panay delivered his AI promises at CES during an AMD press conference announcing the chips.

Parts of Windows already use AI, where it’s involved in everything from system management to search, speech recognition, grammar correction, and even noise suppression and camera image processing. Some of that AI processing is typically farmed out to the cloud. Some can be done on a PC’s graphics chip or its main CPU. With onboard AI-specific hardware, though, the processing could be done right on the PC.

Theoretically, that should lead to benefits, although exactly what those benefits might be aren’t clear. Analysts point to things like better searching and improved image processing. Stephen Kleynhans, a vice president of research at Gartner had this to say: “Who knows, maybe Cortana will make a comeback!” To which I say: Be careful what you wish for.

What can we expect from AI in Windows?

Panay says the new chips with AI processors in them, such as those from AMD, will pave the way for an AI-powered Windows 12. That sounds fine in theory. But in practice, it’s extremely problematic because Windows has to work on an astonishingly wide variety of chips and hardware.

That’s one of Windows’ biggest strengths and one of its greatest weaknesses. It allows manufacturers to build ultra-cheap, barebone laptops and desktops, top-of-the-line power laptops and desktops, and mid-range laptops and desktops, so consumers get the widest range of choices at a variety of prices.

But it’s a weakness because getting Windows to work on so many different kinds of computers, including many flavors of AI processors and many PCs without AI processors, will greatly limit how AI can be integrated into Windows and the benefits users might actually see.

For Windows 12 to run on all that disparate hardware, Microsoft can take one of two approaches. One is to design Windows 12 for the lowest-common denominator, which would mean for computers that don’t have powerful AI processors on board. That, in turn, would mean Microsoft can’t reinvent AI as Panay promised.

The other approach is to design different versions of Windows 12 for different pieces of hardware. Those with powerful AI processors would get the AI-powered version, those with no AI processors or low-powered ones would get a less feature-rich version.

Microsoft tried this second approach once before, with Windows Vista, and it was an unmitigated disaster, leading to angry, confused consumers, lawsuits against the company, and a top Microsoft exec admitting, “We really botched this.”

Back then, Microsoft released two versions of Vista, one that ran the full operating system on fully powered PCs, and another, for less-powerful PCs Microsoft called “Windows Vista Capable PCs,” that lacked many of the operating system’s best capabilities.

How bad was the stripped-down Windows version on Vista Capable PCs? Mike Nash, a corporate vice president for Windows product management, wrote in an email message, "I PERSONALLY got burnt.... I now have a $2,100 e-mail machine." An unnamed Microsoft employee wrote in an email, "Even a piece of junk will qualify" to be called Windows Vista Capable. And Jim Allchin, who was co-president of Microsoft's Platforms and Services Division, wrote in an email, "We really botched this.... You guys have to do a better job with our customers."

I’m betting that Microsoft learned from that disaster and won’t design multiple versions of Windows for different kinds of PCs. Which would mean designing for the lowest-common denominator and forgoing a fully AI-powered version of Windows.

The bottom line 

So is AI a boon or a boondoggle for Windows? It’s likely some of both.

There’s no doubt that lots of behind-the-scenes work will be done better using AI, even if the underlying hardware doesn’t have AI-specific processors. There’s also no doubt that Windows will see incremental improvements because of it. But don’t expect anything revolutionary, at least not any time soon.

Microsoft first needs to figure out what AI can deliver beyond minor new features such as making Zoom meetings prettier. And enough new hardware with AI processors on it needs to be sold so Microsoft can target an AI-powered Windows at them and ignore low-powered PCs.

Until then, a fully featured AI/Windows combo will likely be more marketing hype than reality.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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