With its new tablet-friendly user interface, Windows 8 is going to be a revolution for both desktop users and tablet users alike. These substantial user interface changes are paired with extensive changes beneath the operating system’s surface. For both developers and users, Windows 8 will be the biggest change the Windows platform has ever undergone.
Closer inspection reveals a more complex picture. Windows 8 is a major release, and it is very different from the Windows before it. And yet it’s strangely familiar: when you peek under the covers of the new user interface and look at how it all works, it’s not quite the revolution that Microsoft is claiming it to be.
Windows 8 supports all the traditional Windows applications that have been developed over past decades. But the centerpiece of Windows 8 is not its support for legacy applications. With Windows 8, Microsoft wants to develop a whole new ecosystem of applications: touch-friendly, secure, fluidly animated. The new aesthetic was known as Metro, though rumored legal issues have chased the company away from that particular name. These new applications aren’t built with the time-honored Windows APIs of yore. They’re built with something new: the “Windows Runtime,” aka “WinRT.”
WinRT isn’t just a new library, though it is that in part. More so, it’s a whole new infrastructure for building and assembling Windows programs. If Windows 8 is successful—and more specifically, if Metro apps flourish—WinRT will be the foundation on which Windows apps are built for decades to come.
(A quick note: since Microsoft has moved away from the “Metro” name, Metro style applications are known variously as “Windows Store apps,” and “Windows 8 apps.” The Developer Division tends to prefer the former, and the Windows Division the latter. Neither term is particularly satisfactory, not least because Microsoft is using the same aesthetic, with different underlying technology, on its Web properties and Xbox 360. There are signs that the aesthetic is being called “Microsoft style design,” but this is terminology that few are using. As such, I’m going to continue to refer to them as “Metro style apps” or just “Metro apps.”)
But WinRT is a little surprising. As new as it is, its roots are old and its lineage can be traced back to the early days of Windows. So let me take you on a journey, a trip through Windows’ dim and distant past, unearthing relics of ancient history to discover the true meaning of WinRT and understand why it’s more evolutionary than it appears.
Technology A brief history of Windows: Win16
To really understand where Microsoft is going with its operating system, we first have to understand where it has been: how Windows works today and how things got to be that way.
Operating systems exist to provide services to applications. The range of services an operating system is expected to provide has grown as computing power and user demands have grown. At the most basic level, operating systems provide file handling (creation, deletion, reading and writing of files) and simple I/O (reading from the keyboard, writing to the screen, and in modern operating systems, talking to the network).
The thing that made Windows Windows was, well, windows. It was a graphical user interface with windows, buttons, icons, menus, and a mouse pointer. Windows included basic operating system features—it had APIs for file handling, for example (though behind the scenes, it deferred to DOS to do the actual work)—but to these it added APIs for graphics and windowing. Windows’ graphics API was named GDI, for Graphics Device Interface, and the API for creating windows and menus, responding to mouse events, and so on, was named simply USER.
These APIs are very much of their era. Concepts that are fashionable today—object orientation, security, multiprocessor support—were irrelevant when 16-bit Windows was being developed. Software back then was developed in the C programming language if you were lucky, with chunks of assembler thrown in for good measure. APIs were designed accordingly.
With a graphical operating system came graphical applications.
Before the Internet was a household name, before the World Wide Web had even been invented, the personal computer was designed for one thing above all others: running office productivity software. PCs were for word processors and spreadsheets. That’s what got them into every workplace and, increasingly, people’s homes.
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Treating a word processor as a glorified typewriter was all well and good, but the PC had so much more potential. With a multitasking, GUI operating system, Microsoft (and others) wanted to provide ways to create complex, rich, compound documents. You could take, for example, a sales spreadsheet in Excel and embed a chart from that spreadsheet into a Word document. And the company wanted to do this in a live, interactive way: update the spreadsheet, and the chart in the Word document should change accordingly. Can’t do that with a typewriter.
Technology The component revolution
In 1990, Redmond released Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) 1.0, its technology to enable just this kind of scenario. A document produced in an OLE word processor could include tables and charts from an OLE spreadsheet, and these table and chart objects could either be linked back to the originating spreadsheet file, or even use a spreadsheet file embedded within document itself. Double-clicking the charts would open the spreadsheet program and allow the data to be edited. With OLE, compound documents were a reality. In 1991, Word and Excel versions that used OLE 1.0 were released, and the OLE libraries were included with Windows 3.1, shipping in 1992.
Perhaps the single most important feature of OLE was that it was extensible. The word processor wouldn’t have to know anything specific about the spreadsheet program; it wouldn’t have to know what the program was called, or who wrote it. It wouldn’t have to understand the spreadsheet program’s file format. It just had to be able to link and embed OLE objects using the OLE libraries. It could perform standard actions on OLE objects—such as “open this object up for editing.” The OLE infrastructure would even make sure the right program got started up, and that when that program saved its data, it got put back in the right place.
OLE 1.0 was a little clumsy to use, and it was quite singular in its purpose: to compound documents. But Microsoft liked the concept of having software components that could communicate with each other in a standard way, even without knowing much about each other. The company decided to flesh out this core technology to make it into a general-purpose component technology. Unaware of how annoying it would later be to have a name that’s all but unusable by Web search engines, they named it COM: Component Object Model.
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