Opinions

How Full Windows 10 running on ARM CPU will affect computing future

So it finally happened! I have been predicting x86 emulation on ARM CPU ever since Intel stopped product development for Atom for mobile SoC.


@WinHEC 2016, Microsoft showed Windows 10 running on ARM

A few major things happened over the year to make this happen.

  1. Windows 10 Mobile Continuum
  2. Intel ending development of Atom SoC
  3. Qualcomm adding virtualisation support for SnapDragon SoC
  4. Various bridges for developers to easily port their apps to Windows 10
  5. Windows 10 Common Core (or why there’s no 64bit mobile Windows 10)
  6. Some special sauce from the brains @Xamarin
  7. Microsoft letting go of the last vestiges of Nokia

Let’s look at this point by point.

First point. Windows 10 Mobile Continuum feature has always been this dream of making your smartphone act more like a PC when connected to a large display + keyboard/mouse. However, people quickly notice far too many icons don’t work because the developer hasn’t written their app in Universal Windows Platform (UWP) format or their mobile app isn’t optimised for a larger display yet.

Rather than waiting for mobile developers to get around to adding UWP support, why not ask PC developers to scale their apps down? And at the same time, support legacy Windows program through the Desktop to UWP bridge so it’s possible for Windows 10 to run these UWP on ARM64 SoC.

Second point. (This is my speculation.) Intel has made a terrible mistake in ending Atom SoC development. They pushed Microsoft to seek an alternate SoC and they are the probably the reason Qualcomm added virtualisation support. I don’t remember Google/Android asking for x86 capability.

Third Point. Despite how fast Snapdragon (SD) SoCs are, the Atom X7 can keep up with it easily & in fact outperform it, albeit using slightly more power. The reason is every core of Atom can process SIMD (DSP) SSE instructions which gives it an advantage in terms of mathematical calculations. The letdown of Atom is in the GPU. Unlike Qualcomm, Intel obviously doesn’t want to put a flagship class GPU to compete with their Core CPU.

Recently, Qualcomm announced DSP & Virtualisation support for their next-gen SD835 SoC with an even faster GPU. This allows Microsoft to enable many of the desktop class features that required DSP to accelerate their functions. Many of Windows 10 Mobile functions like its User Shell & Cellular functions will be integrated into full Desktop Windows 10 as shown in the video. Finally, full Windows 10 can compete with IOS & Android for Tablets.

Fourth point. Microsoft is a software company at its core. Their oldest and strongest products are their OS and Visual Studio development environment. It comes as no surprise they can create conversion tools to directly take other platform codes and make it work on theirs. It’s also no surprise when you consider the fact that Windows NT (which Windows 10 is based on) was created to run on multiple CPU architectures.

Fifth point. For the longest time, Windows Phone fans had been wondering why Microsoft refused to create a 64-bit version of Windows 10 Mobile. I have always argued that mobile platforms don’t need 64-bit at all because no single mobile app will ever use 4GB of memory. Now we know the reason is because Microsoft has been concentrating in making full Windows 10 even more mobile.

We already know that Windows 10 shares the same kernel & some of the hardware stacks between PC, Xbox, Mobile, Hololens and IoT. However, what most people don’t realise is Microsoft has been breaking their Service Stacks into smaller and smaller pieces with every new revision of Windows 10.

Just look at your Services manager in Computer Management, there’re more and more Services running in the background. However, RAM usage hardly increase. The reason is to allow more services to be compartmentalised so Microsoft developers can pick the services relevant to that particular platform and reuse as much code as possible. This isn’t possible if the services are large and monolithic in nature.

My prediction is, instead of emulation, Windows 10 will run natively in ARM64 mode. Not surprising since Surface RT IS running an ARM version of Windows 8. This means all (desktop) Windows 10 services AND first-party apps will run at full speed since they’re compiled for ARM64.

All UWP apps can run in either native ARM or virtualised x86 mode depending on the developer. Also not surprising because when you run a 32-bit program in 64-bit Windows, Windows will launch the program in Windows on Windows 64-bit mode (WoW64). So now, instead of apps running in an x64 sandbox, it’s a Windows app running in an ARM64 sandbox.

Sixth point. I bet the brilliant minds at Xamarin had been cross-pollinating with the minds at Visual Studio to create the most powerful x86/x64/ARM cross-compiling toolkit possible! I’m guessing these are the people convincing Qualcomm to add virtualisation support for the latest SD. The power of software!!!

Seventh point. I’m guessing former Microsoft staff of formerly Nokia mobile division still have a static mindset about the future of mobile and smartphones. It’s probably good they’re let go to work on other worthwhile projects like the new Nokia-branded smartphones ODM by the China firm that bought over from Microsoft, or SailFish for the Russian bloc.

However, we also know that certain key ex-Nokian went to work at Microsoft Research. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are expert in camera and cellular tech.

The future. This part is my speculation about Microsoft’s strategy moving forward.

If Intel had continue to invest in Atom SoC, we’ll probably have the mythical “Surface Phone” by now that can run UWP & Legacy programs through Continuum.

Qualcomm seem to have fill that gap but I’m still skeptical over the emulation performance. However, if the Adobe Photoshop presented by Terry Myerson in the video is running in emulation mode and the video wasn’t edited, then I’m cautiously optimistic. The “Surface Phone” can now get back on track but don’t expect it to ship until end of 2017.

This is also the first time desktop Windows 10 gain cellular radio stack and mobile-context specific features related to voice calls and sms. The Skype Preview app is already hinting at the direction Windows 10 is taking so it’s more proof of mobile features added to Windows 10, rather than more desktop features added to Windows 10 mobile. Microsoft is moving in the opposite direction as IOS & Android.

With a Cellular stack built into Windows 10, Windows will finally become a full fledge mobile OS. With ARM’s more simple RISC architecture, power management should be easier to manage and Windows 10 should have much better standby time. Intel Atom (Enhanced SpeedStep) has great running time but the standby time still lacks far behind Qualcomm’s Snapdragon high/low-power cores. It’ll be interesting to note how Windows 10 handles the ‘big.LITTLE’ Kryo 28x Cores.

Windows 10 Continuum will also have a combined dual-shell or a morphable shell (called CShell) that switches interface depending on the screen (not device) context. Maybe now we’ll finally have a Landscape mobile Start Screen, and of course, multi-screen is naturally supported. It better support dock-able Windows for larger 5-7″ screens too!

Ultimately, the “Surface Mobile” can be your only computing devices. So what kind of a device is this Surface Mobile? Well I think it’ll be running a SD835 clocked at 1.9Ghz on battery, and 2.45Ghz when plugged into the Microsoft Display Dock. It should have 4GB of RAM and has a 5.5″ – 6″ display to allow adequate space for heat spreading. A 1440P display is good enough, a 4K display will be a waste of battery and GPU cycles. Now, Windows 10 requires a lot of space, so 64GB of eMMC 5.1 Storage is required.

Where does that leave Intel or even AMD? Well, Intel has abandoned Atom because they have probably figured out how to make a Core series based SoC hit the 2W TDP but their 10nm fab is having yield issues, which is why CannonLake is postponed. AMD has also announced new APU that can step through the clock at 25Mhz increments thus providing more aggressive power management but being fab on a 28nm process, I reckon power consumption will be higher than KabyLake.

What this means is, Intel is trying to make their Core m CPU fit into a mobile environment so the CPU wouldn’t fry your smartphone. And AMD new Ryzen CPU isn’t ready for mobile.

Qualcomm just released information on their latest Snapdragon 835 SoC.

Based on the information released, SD835 supports new 3D audio processing and enhanced camera image processor. It looks like a future Microsoft Hololens 2 could be powered by the SD835! The Surface 4 could also be based on a SD835!

In the meantime, you can check up my past predictions which has come true below.

How Windows Phone 8 & Windows 8 can share software

OEMs can’t do it, so Microsoft DID IT!

Samsung losing patent case is Good for consumers!

Update 03 Feb 2017: Updated with the product codenames for future Windows features I have corrected predicted, like CSHELL and clearer explanation of CPU terminology.

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Solutions

Recovering a Windows 8 laptop without DVD & Product Key

Disaster! My Laptop Harddisk has crashed! How many of you had this happened to your laptop or your child’s laptop?

This is a very nice looking laptop!
This is a very nice looking laptop!

You were happily using your new Core i7 laptop which you got it cheap during Black Friday or Cyber-Monday, or during one of the 4 IT shows in Singapore. But after using for a year, the harddisk crashed right after the warranty expires? Sounds familiar?

That's what I thought. A cheap, slow & not so shock resistant harddisk.
That’s what I thought. A cheap, slow & not so shock resistant harddisk.

No problem, you tell yourself, Windows 8/8.1 has a “Recovery” function that will restore the laptop to factory condition! So you booted to the Recovery section of Windows 8 where you can “Refresh” or “Remove everything & Reinstall Windows”. Neat!

Windows 8 Recovery Page. Great for software rescue!
Windows 8 Recovery Page. Great for software rescue!

Except it takes forever to do the “Automatic Repair” or “Remove everything” fails at some point due to a head crash or media degradation and all because the laptop was moved around while in use! Or worse, the laptop simply don’t recognise the harddisk anymore!

Behold the inside of an Asus laptop.
Behold the inside of an Asus laptop.

OK, never mind! You (hopefully) have a backup of the important data, let’s just change the harddisk to something more resilient, like a Solid-State Disk (SSD)! You can get a Samsung EVO 850 256GB at $220+ these days and reviews are great for these SSDs, 10x faster than harddisk, no moving parts to crash, useful lifespan of more than 10 years & uses half the power! Why didn’t you buy a laptop with an SSD in the first place? Oh, that’s right. Cheaper models don’t come with an SSD option.

This is the battery resting on the Aluminium shell.
This is the battery resting on the Aluminium shell. The 2 silver oval you see either sides are the B & O speakers in their bass chambers!

The Recovery nightmare continues!

Alrighty! You bought your SSD, replace the failed harddisk yourself, which was easy enough, let’s open the laptop box for the recovery DVD & Windows 8 Product Key. Except your new Ultrabook doesn’t come with a DVD-ROM or Recovery DVD & maybe even without a Windows 8 Product Key! Faintz!

OK, don’t panic, let’s go to the maker’s website for support! What? You have to pay extra for a Recovery Disc to create a special thumbdrive because you didn’t do it the FIRST time you switched on your laptop? What is this daylight robbery?!?!

Now what? Try cloning from the old harddisk? Can’t do that. It’s bigger than the SSD & it’s full of bad sectors!
Get someone to do it? Will they do a good job & what are the charges?
Download the Recovery disc from Torrent? Is it infected with virus?
Search Forums? Most of them don’t have a clue.
Ask Microsoft for help in their forums? Moderators ask you to look for your OEM/laptop maker…

The solution for new laptops with UEFI BIOS

Lucky you! You’ve come to the right website! The solution with many recent (last 3 years) laptops is so simple that I’m amazed no one’s got it! Or at least publish it widely enough that a simple Google or Bing search will find it. There’s no need to extract the encrypted product key from UEFI, no need to create Bootable thumbdrive & mount the Windows 8 Rescue ISO. No need to mess with Linux Bootloader like Grub or syslinux. I’ve tried so many different methods and they don’t work due to some incompatibility here or there. It was a massive waste of time! Argh!

Microsoft has published the solution starting from Windows 8.1! Why they don’t publicise is a great mystery! Anyway, many newer laptop have the new UEFI BIOS instead of the old IBM-PC BIOS. Without going into details about how great UEFI BIOS are, one of the features these new BIOS allows is for laptop makers to embed a Windows 8 Product Key into the BIOS itself! This is why there is no DVD or Product key or License sticker included in the laptop box!

So the next question is, how do you install Windows 8.1 onto your new SSD? Just get a fast 8GB thumbdrive or SD card, go to this Microsoft website and follow the instructions!

* For your convenience, I’ve included the steps & things to watch out for below.

Windows Installation Media Creation Tool

Why do Microsoft like to use such LONG names for their stuff?

Are you at the Create installation media for Windows 8.1 page?

Windows 8 Installation Media Creation Tool
Windows 8 Installation Media Creation Tool
  1. Click the “Create Media” button & run the downloaded file
  2. Select your Language
  3. Select the Edition. Most consumer laptops are running “Windows 8.1”. Business laptops will likely be “Windows 8.1 Pro”.
  4. Select the Architecture. If your laptop will NEVER EVER be installed with more than 4GB of RAM, chose “32-bit (x86)”. If you have more than 4GB of RAM or you’re planning to install more in the future, you MUST choose “64-bit (x64).
  5. Click Next and you’ll see this.
  6. Choose USB flash drive
  7. Select USB flash drive and click Next.
  8. Make sure to select the correct drive!
    Make sure to select the correct drive!

    Select the correct drive before clicking Next!

  9. Click OK if you're sure.
    Click OK if you’re sure.
  10. Click “OK” at the dialog box if you’re sure you have the right drive.
  11. Download starts...
    Download starts…
  12. Wait for download to complete & for it to check the files & getting the files ready & creating the USB…
  13. Once it’s completed. You should click “What’s next?” which will take you to a Microsoft website that guide you on using this Thumbdrive to install Windows 8.1. Print it or open it on your phone or something! This is the link for Boot from the media you created to install on a partition.
  14. Insert the thumbdrive into your laptop & boot from the thumbdrive instead of the SSD. Different laptops has different keys to enter the Boot Manager. Search for your brand online. It’s usually ESC or DEL or ENTER key.
  15. Install Windows 8.1 even though your laptop came with Windows 8! It’ll even auto-activate if you’re online! There’s no need to key in any Product Key! This thumbdrive has now become your Rescue/Recovery drive as well! Keep it safe!

Well I hope this help you. Leave comments, subscribe and like my posts!!! 🙂

Opinions

Microsoft buys Nokia! …

WOW! But not all that surprising…

OK, Microsoft buys Nokia’s devices division & licensed their IP non-exclusively for 10-years for USD$7B. Nokia will keep their Nokia Networks & Here Mapping, not sure about their Advanced Imaging group (Scalado) though.

More information here. Microsoft acquires Nokia’s Devices division.

Some history

Nokia has been hemorrhaging market share for a long time. Symbian was fine as an advanced feature-phone but based on today’s metric of counting apps & multi-touch, it’s not really considered a modern smartphone. Sony Ericsson withdrawal from Symbian in 2010 hit the final nail in Symbian’s coffin as a mobile OS. Nokia just prolonged the inevitable and by the time the board realize it, it was almost too late. Which is why they brought in an ex-Microsoftie, Stephan Elop.

Nokia Symbian steadily losing market share.

There are some undercurrent of mistrust generally coming from an ex-Nokia executive Tomi Ahonen but that’s to be expected because after all, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile was an competitor’s platform for the longest time, even though Stephan Elop was in charge of Microsoft Office 2010 & Microsoft Dynamics for 2 years only. The truth is probably somewhere in between but that point is moot since the Symbian-based Nokia Asha product line didn’t do as well as expected in China & India.

Nokia has underestimated the demand for high-quality smartphone at an affordable price. Which is why the Nokia Lumia 520 sold extremely well while the Asha line didn’t. Everyone seems to want to launch expensive flagship phones but market share is built from bulk purchase of entry-level & mid-tier phones. In fact, most of Android’s market share come from cheap phones & even “smart” feature-phones using Android.

Despite the fact that investors are increasingly questioning Elop’s “Burning Platform” approach, it stands to reason that the world don’t need another Android maker. HTC is tepidly recovering with their HTC One, Sony & LG are posting some profits for their Android handset business after years of loss & Moto still seems to be flat on their face. Only Samsung is making real money so Nokia isn’t so bad IF you consider their record USD$3B lose in 2012. However, turning businesses around is always painful and Elop has handled it pretty well.

If Nokia had gone with Android in 2011, they may not have been desperate enough to bring OIS to phone cameras (Apple & Samsung are not expected to bring OIS in 2013), or improve Navteq (now called Here) to be a true Google Maps competitor in 2013, or Wireless charging across most of their product range starting in 2012. All this happened within 2 years of Elop coming on board.

The Nokia Lumia 800 was my first Nokia phone ever, while the Lumia 920 was my second. I’ve always used Windows Mobile because it’s a true smartphone compared to Symbian but seeing how Nokia was committed to Windows Phones & bringing so much to the eco-system, I remain convinced that going with Nokia phones was the right move because other partners like HTC & Samsung eventually gave more resources to their Android phones & I can’t blame them since it made more business sense. And I was right. My third Windows Phone will be the upcoming Nokia Lumia 1020, the 41 megapixel monster which looks just like my Lumia 920. 🙂

The present

3 months ago, it was reported that Microsoft and Nokia talks about Nokia’s hardware division sales to Microsoft had collapsed. On retrospect, this was a red herring created to throw everyone off-balance. Good business move. I always wondered why that news pop out of nowhere.

With HTC going down (executives leaving and/or defrauding the company, Q3 2013 expected loss) & Samsung disinterested in WP and plans for Tizen (based on Intel Atom SoC rather than ARM), now is the right time for Microsoft to buy Nokia. No one will likely challenge this move and it’ll help Windows Phone immensely.

With the combined strength of Bing Maps + Here Maps, Microsoft now have 2/3 of what’s needed to take on Google Maps. The last one 1/3 is Foursquare, which Microsoft is actively courting.

MS has also licensed a huge treasure trove of Nokia IP, which has proven to be lucrative & effective in fighting off patent trolls unlike Moto’s IP. They have also acquired Nokia’s up & coming Lumia brand which is synonymous with innovation & clever advertising.

Clever guerilla ad campaign by Nokia Lumia 1020 against the Samsung S4 Zoom.

Nokia Asha & other feature-phones will most likely be wiped off the roadmap by 2014. I could be wrong but I don’t see Microsoft is interested in fighting with China & India low-end phone makers.

Nokia will have access to Microsoft (Pegatron) factories in China, Microsoft will also acquire Nokia supply-chain management & manufacturing capabilities so there’ll be no more USD$900m write-down.

Elop has proven to be a great person in reversing Nokia’s diminishing fortunes but at the same time, conspiracy theorists will continue to accuse Ballmer of sending Elop to Nokia as an acquisition target some time in the future. The truth is probably in between, since Microsoft has ALWAYS sent seed money & people to friends & frenemies alike.

This is part of Bill Gate’s legacy. To have Microsoft software everywhere whether they be thay friend or thay enemy because in business, everyone is a bit of both.

 

Stephan Elop as a leading contender of Steve Ballmer’s successor.

The Future

We already know that Bill Gates, Microsoft board & ValueAct all had a role in Steve Ballmer’s surprise retirement announcement a few days ago. His leadership was controversial from the beginning but he has fans and critics alike.

Now is also a good time for him to step down because although he had keep Microsoft growing strongly all these years, he obviously missed the mobile boat. It can be argued that Microsoft needs a CEO that doesn’t exist, someone who’s a strong Microsoft team-player & supporter, someone who has strong leadership & management skills and someone who has a good track record.

Stephan Elop seems to fit the bill very well & many pundits are already predicting this deal confirms Stephan as the best candidate since he’s a solid Microsoft supporter, so he wouldn’t rock the boat too much like selling off Bing; he’ll bring an outside perspective to Microsoft but is not marginalized like Steven Sinofsky; he’s shown his brilliance in making people like the Office 2010 ribbon & saving Windows Phone and finally, his PR-friendly face & press-friendly nature means there may be less bad press and more love for Microsoft moving forward. Perception is a very important factor in the success in any product or services.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned in a post from last year where I predicted Windows 8 & WP8 will share code in a common IDE, we may actually see WP9 be based on Windows RT, thus coming full circle where Windows is finally Mobile.

Oh, did I mention Xbox One will also run Windows 8? 😉

Opinions

Creative Technologies, missed opportunities or lost cause?

Ancient History

Update 1 27/2/2014: Thanks to Arthur for new info
Update 2 09/3/2016: New info/insights from FY15 financial report + clearer grammer. I’m still getting regular hits to this old and rushed article! What do you, the reader, hope to learn? Share with me in the comments!

Creative Technologies (CT) became famous for their SoundBlaster soundcards in the 1980s. They were the first company in the world to combine FM Synthesizer (MIDI music) & PCM Codec (Voice/Sound effects) + a MIDI/Game port in a single ISA peripheral card. The all-in-one card was sold at a price that basically undercut the competitions at that time. From my memory, their main competitors were Adlib card (also an ISA card) & Covox Speech Thing, which is an external device that plugs into the parallel (printer) port.

Perhaps more importantly, the driver support was open to all PC & games developers, who started the multimedia revolution. This got a huge kickstart when Microsoft announced plans for the Multimedia PC (MPC) and SoundBlaster was the only card in town to meet those specifications.

From there, enhancements were made rapidly as new components (Integrated Circuits) with new capabilities became available from chip suppliers. CT was also very smart in ensuring new hardware and drivers were 100% backward-compatible so every new generation of soundcards provided an almost irresistible urge for gamers and enthusiast to upgrade! Even if the games at that time didn’t yet support the new features.

There were many competitors from Singapore & abroad but an aggressive marketing campaign + aggressive product roadmap soon see them to the pole position. Needless to say, CT became a darling on NASDAQ & SGX. Every new product launch will see a corresponding spike in share price & a nice dividend payout.

They were doing very well in the Soundcard industry in the 90s, especially with the acquisition of E-MU & then Aureal, which turned their soundcards so powerful, it can be used in industrial applications due to the E-MU DSP. Games were specially written to take advantage of all these 3D positioning sounds as Aureal APIs allow game and multimedia developers to place sound/music at specific spatial locations relative to the listener. Games written for Aureal 3D sounded truly immersive!

For music/video playback, only QSound encoded audio sounded more convincing with distinctive sound playing in and around your head. SRS & CMSS-3D extracted audio cues while stereo audio is streamed so these algorithm only expanded the soundstage and was not suitable for gaming. Aureal 3D was not suitable for music/video playback because you have to tell the algorithm where to place the sound.

DirectSound actually heralded the downfall of CT’s dominance. Microsoft introduced DirectX for multimedia & game developers to standardise on the PC platform. Intel also released reference motherboard designs to OEMs to copy. Microsoft followed up with Direct3D & DirectSound3D which brings arcade level gaming to PCs.

Being in pole position for so long, CT became so big & bureaucratical that they fail to notice the development of inexpensive soundchips being built & integrated into motherboards. Granted these early generation soundchips sounded horrible due to multiple issues like the inability to play & record at the same time + grounding issues on motherboards causing all sorts of noise & interference on the audio output & unstable drivers causing crashes.

CT was still selling SoundBlasters like hotcakes & everyone would switch off the onboard sound. They didn’t realize that after just a few generations of soundchips, these ICs were gaining in capability fast, like the ability to support multiple DirectSound3D streams + 24bit sound output + 108db sound quality + 7.1 sound output.

With each generation being less than 9 months, motherboard makers quickly learnt from their mistakes by isolating the sound circuits with better grounding & by moving high noise data pathways from the North & South Bridge chipsets away from the soundchips.

Windows drivers also got much better with Microsoft support. DirectX was also rapidly improving in capabilities, so much so that in less than 3 years, integrated sound became good enough to compete with SoundBlaster! $0 vs $300+ for a high-end Audigy Gold card or $100+ for a AWE32.

Consumers flocked to the cheaper solution of course, driven not just by price but the irrelevance of the main feature of the AWE-32 & Audigy. That feature is wavetable-synthesized music. With the Audigy, you can get studio quality music from a PC Soundcard that cost $300+ versus a professional card/deck that cost thousands. CT was slow to respond to this trend, probably blindsided by the professional market so it wasn’t till it was too late that CT has integrated Soundblaster in a few select motherboards. But due to cost from integrating the much larger Soundblaster IC, most OEMs didn’t support it. The market just dried up and now the Taiwanese company, Realtek is the undisputed leader.

In the past, if you wanted music in your software or games, the only way was through FM synthesizers. These chips modulated a base frequency into a shape that somewhat resembles real instruments. The best early example is the Nintendo Entertainment System. A simple script called a MIDI file has information on when to play a note and for how long on a selected channel. Every MIDI file has multiple channels each assigned an instrument. When all these channels were played together, a surreal synthesized music is heard. The main advantage of MIDI is these files were extremely small so were favoured due to disk & memory constrains in the past.

With 16-bit CD quality sound becoming the norm, the music portion needed to keep up and Wavetable Synthesis was brought over from the professional audio equipment market. Instead of a frequency modulated waveform being generated, the note from the MIDI file being played actually comes from a pre-recorded sample from a real instrument, called a patch.

At that time, if you wanted the most compatibility for wavetable sound, you had to go for the SoundBlaster AWE-32. But if you wanted the BEST music, you got the Gravis Ultrasound, which also supported a newer even more powerful music scripting format called the MOD(ule). This allowed more reverb, variation, cross-channel mixing, patch manipulation and unlimited patch size.

In the past, Voice & Sound effects were stored in PCM wave format whose file size was huge in comparison to MIDI. As with all inventions, necessity was the main driver of innovation. People wanted to compress CD-quality wave files to make them easier to transport & work with in games & multimedia applications, especially over the new media called the Internet. MP3 was quickly adopted & formed the basis of all music in games, media & movies over the Internet. This basically spelt an end to all synthesized music (both MIDI & MOD) in the consumer realm, rendering all Soundblaster AWE/Audigy & competitor standalone cards overkill. The integrated soundchips with their ability to handle 64 channels of PCM sounds were all that’s needed by consumers. From my memory, the first local casualty of this was Aztech Singapore with their Sound Galaxy range.

Unfortunately, CT’s trouble didn’t end there. A few misstep along the way soon confounded their recover. First was the CD-ROM drive. In the 90s, there were quite a few companies in Singapore making CD-ROM drives. However, once again, cheaper alternatives from overseas (Taiwan mainly) soon convinced consumers to buy those white-box OEM drives instead of the nicely boxed CT drives, which always seem to be a generation slower than these white-box drives. Wearnes Technology was almost wiped out during that episode. CT had a much better balance sheet so they were able to secure Singapore government assistance in the ensuing write-off.

However, the assistance comes with unintended consequences. According to (unverified) insiders of the deal, the agreement was for the Singapore government investment branch, Temasek Holdings, to take over a majority stake of the equitable shares of CT basically nationalizing it, & Sim Wong Hoo in effect lost the company he fought so hard to build. It could be this reason that CT was forced to delist from NASDAQ. The fund was injected through the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Sim Wong Hoo did eventually bought back much of the shares but at great costs.

Now, we all know that government top-down bureaucratic management style doesn’t work in a hi-speed hi-tech industry & that may be what happened to CT, where bottom-line was the overwriting concern rather than taking risks by pumping millions of dollars into R&D to create new products.

CT did have a second-wind with their Zen MP3 players which looked nice, had different form factors/colours, supported all common music formats, can be expanded with external memory & had great software that can transcode one format to another easily. However, Apple came along & stole the thunder with the iPod. CT’s lawsuit against Apple only secured a lifeline, not a victory.

CT’s foray into the 3D graphics card industry also met with poor results. The 3D GPU industry moved at an even faster pace than the soundcard industry. I’m not sure why CT acquired 3Dlabs, but I doubt it’s for their PC potential since CT used nVidia chips before calling it quits.

CT bought Cambridge Soundworks in 1997 with the hopes that the resulting synergy can reinvigorate the company but the gaming surround speakers failed to take off & CT had to sell the division away.

Along the way, they also acquired some gaming peripheral companies which didn’t work out and had to be divested. At this point in the 2000s, CT was completely off my radar and I no longer tracked any of their product range.

In 2009, CT launched a well-publicized but poorly executed (in consumer-space at least) campaign for their (poorly-name) StemCell CPU with “a 100-fold increase in supercomputing power over current technology”. No one understood what the fuss was about. CT’s only real showcase of the technology was an Android powered tablet that few people had a chance to try & a backplane-like cascade of ZMS-05 modules doing 1-teraflop but rendering something rather mundane.

As far as I can tell, the ZMS-05 platform is simply a dual-core ARM-based CPU with 3DLabs GPU component capable of performing 100 concurrent streams. The only difference may be the development platform allows the GPU to handle general programming tasks rather than simply graphical tasks. This may be similar to OpenCL for PC GPU. At that time, this capability was not available for the ARM architecture.

Unfortunately, it was not marketed enough & competitors like Qualcomm (Snapdragon), Samsung (Exynos) & NVidia (Tegra) soon signed up all the tablet OEMs leaving very little for CT.

CT did have a design win when Intel acquired the Ziilabs team for the StemCell architecture in 2012, probably to bolster Intel’s inadequate GPU. I wonder if it was integrated in the new Haswell Core-i CPU thereby giving that CPU the graphics boost it demonstrated in 2011. Haswell chips were eventually released in 2013.

However, for CT, it may not be a good deal because all the best engineering minds from 3DLabs have gone to Intel. Even though CT still owns the IP & Intel is technically licensing it, an IP that doesn’t generate new IP and/or products will be obsoleted in just a few years.

Lastly, CT also have a “Hanz” line of Chinese language hardware platform & software education system but those didn’t really help the bottom-line as shown in the Financial Report 2015.

So what’s left?

Not much actually. They probably ODM certain products, ship the design to China for manufacture & probably rebrand China products for sales elsewhere. Their revenue and R&D spendings have been reducing YoY & they posted a USD $33m loss in FY2015. Their longtime Creative Store at Marina Square is gone. CT is still holding on to USD $99m in cash + cash equivalent down from USD $140m in FY2013.

Where did it go so horribly wrong?

Like the fall of Rome, the collapse did not happen overnight. There must have been many events that lead to disaster. We could point to the failed investments in the past or the lack of direction or even top-level mismanagement. Some may even blame the Singapore Government in meddling in the private section.

I think it’s because CEO Sim Wong Hoo is 61 this year. With no succession plan in place (that I heard of), there’s not likely to be any change in CT’s direction nor will there be a change in their fortune or share prices.

Whatever it is, CT is a pale shade of what it used to be.

Is it a lost cause?

It really depends on whether they have someone to succeed the CEO position and bring fresh perspective & fresh blood into a still pond. It’s currently trading at SGD$1 on SES.

They’re trying to sell a high-end soundbar called X-Fi Sonic Carrier, which admittedly looks good and support Dolby Atmos 15.2 sound but carries a $2800 Pre-order price tag and ships towards the end of 2016. Most sound-bars comes bundled with a mid-range SmartTV so I’m not sure how well this will sell, especially since the launch price is an eye-watering $7000! I believe I can get an LG 50+” OLED UHD SmartTV with sound-bar + sub-woofer for that price!

Is Creative trying to do high-end audiophile market like Bang & Olufsen?

What can they do now?

In 2013, I thought AV Receivers may be worth investing in. I don’t think so anymore, what with most young people abandoning huge TV for huge phones with hundreds dollar headphones. For older folks who still prefer huge TVs, the AV Receivers & box speakers are replaced with a SmartTV coupled to a multi-directional sound-bar with a powerful sub-woofer.

The only gadget trends that’s big right now, with sustained interest for the next 3 years, is Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) goggles and Internet of Things (IoT.)

I doubt they have the engineering talent left for VR/AR, so maybe CT can start with small IoT projects based off ZMS-05?

They have a lot of great IP which they seem unable to tap. Soundcards (both PCI-e & USB) are essentially dead. With ARM CPU makers integrating DSPs inside their SoC, the DSP cores from E-MU are no longer special.

Without an aggressive marketing strategy like Beats (Apple) or Sonos, I’m not sure how much the Sonic Carrier can add to the bottom-line, even if the sound is awesome. CT really needs to find a niche where they can sell/bundle truckloads of these sound-bars. Maybe small auditoriums or lecture halls?

With that in mind, I have always wonder why CT never went into the AV Receiver market. That’s a market that people are willing to spend on great sound & video, including speakers!

The 3DLabs GPU can be put to great use by upscaling lower res video source from RCA or Component and outputting through HDMI 1.4 for HDTV. The streaming engine can easily be programmed to do deblocking, de-interlacing, Motion interpolation & sharpening of digital video, or 3D-comb filtering, smoothing of TV & other analog signals. Then to top it all off, perform a 3D-conversion!

For Audio, just couple that ZMS-05 module with a ton of balanced Class-AB OP-AMPs and they’re good to go!

The Android OS can be used for onscreen navigation with integrated apps for things like YouTube, Vimeo, Netflicks etc., similar to media boxes from Western Digital & A.C. Ryan.

Conclusion

As a Singaporean, it’s sad to see CT fall from grace but at least they’re still around. I hope someone takes over CT or let CEO Sim Wong Hoo retire from daily running. CT definitely needs a direction so they can recover soon before the cash runs out.

Opinions

Why Microsoft risk alienating 1Billion users by overhauling Windows 8?

Overview

If you’re reading my blog, you’d probably know Microsoft released Windows 8 & RT on 26th Oct 2012 & it looks nothing like any Windows before it. So why is Microsoft willing to risk causing computing mayhem & potential sales by making such a drastic change?

If you’re looking for tips on navigating the new Windows 8 Start Screen, come to my tutorial page to get up to speed.

Windows 8: A bigger more cheerful environment to work & play in

With the rise of Apple iOS & its simple uncluttered design philosophy for iPhones & iPads, consumers have been flocking to buy up every new version even though a typical iPhone/iPad cost as much as a netbook. The smooth & fluid transitions is both appealing to the eyes as well as help to mask the loading time of apps or webpages. iOS works because much attention has been paid to simplicity & emoting the senses.

Microsoft Windows on the other hand has always been about getting the job done in the fastest possible time & letting you get on with your work & personal life. Little effort was made to connect with the user on an emotional level.

Sure, Windows allowed tons of customisation. Windows Vista introduced a prettier shell called Aero with all its transparency but that was all just copying Mac OS X, which does connect to the user on an emotional level with tons of fancy animations.

Much debate has been made about a pretty interface versus getting the job done, and iOS has proven you can have both & feel good about it.

In the past, many Windows XP/Vista users would just revert to the classic shell because it was much faster, especially for older hardware. Microsoft didn’t make it a point to make the XP Luna & Vista Aero shell work faster even though the GPU supports it. Windows 7 changed that but the battle was already lost to OS X with many migrating to the Mac during the mess Vista made.

Many people are already drawing parallels between Vista & Windows 8 but as you’d read later, this isn’t the case at all.

Microsoft knew they screwed up with Vista

Microsoft knew way back then they screwed up big time with Longhorn (the codename for Vista). Some major features like WinFS had to be dropped & unpopular features like UAC introduced.

The minimum requirement was too high for hardware and the (perceived) improvements didn’t justify such a drastic increase in CPU & RAM. However, in the name of better security, these painful changes had to be implemented but it was poorly executed & explained despite the massive Beta programme.

During this whole time, Microsoft had been streamlining their kernel with the MinWin initiative to breakdown the Monolithic NT Kernel into a modified Microkernel platform to allow easier maintainance of code, with emphasis on security.

Windows 7 was the fruit of that labour & for the first time in Microsoft history, you could run Windows on LESS hardware than its predecessor.

One of the design goals of MinWin was to allow Microsoft to scale the NT kernel for less powerful CPU to super-high-power CPU clusters. On the low-power end, mobile was definitely a target ever since Bill Gates introduced the TabletPC in 2001.

Microsoft has been monitoring the situation closely & according to reports, Microsoft had to delay entering the Mobile market due to viruses & other malware targeting Windows. We’re all aware that using Windows without Antivirus & Firewall is suicidal if you’re online. Fortunately, according to this report, Microsoft products now much more secure than before. (Scroll to the bottom for the list).

Having said that, I wouldn’t advise you to uninstall your Antivirus software anytime soon.

Windows 8 Build on Windows 7 security strength

With Windows 8, Microsoft seek to make it even more secure by promoting their curated “Windows Store” to ensure that in future, most software (called App) must be checked by Microsoft before they’re published for download.

Microsoft has also built-in an Antivirus called Defender beside the Firewall that came bundled since XP SP2. Users of the free Security Essentials will feel right at home.

If that didn’t catch the virus, the Windows 8 Remove everything function will basically wipe out everything including your data & any viruses that may be present, thereby returning it to pristine condition.

After using Windows for a year or two in desktop mode, bloat & junk build up & slow Windows down. You can use the new Refresh function to wipe out all these unnecessary stuff without losing your data.

In theory, Apps should not have this problem because they exist in their own sandbox environment with no access to the underlying system except to save files.

Now that Microsoft has solved the most pressing issue with Windows in a mobile & hostile internet environment, the next step was to be competitive with new players like Apple’s iOS & Google’s Android.

Microsoft saw in iOS & Android the same tired icon interface that everyone has been using for the past 20 years. Granted, the resolutions are higher & the colour richer, but it’s still rows of static icons. They decided to adopt a design philosophy that has been extremely successful for public transport & road signs. It was called “Metro” after the subway train services across the world.

Changing for the Better

Many people are afraid of change. A lot of these people are very vocal about staying within their comfort zone. And yet, time & again, it’s change that drive growth, financially, philosophically & functionally.

Steve Jobs is the embodiment of how doing what’s right & needed in a timely fashion is what drives innovation & growth. Unfortunately, his death seems to have diminished the spark Apple had during its bull run.

Microsoft on the other hand, is just coming out of its Antitrust funk, with many good leaders coming out of that difficult time. Many of the current leaders are following Bill Gates aggressive way of doing technology, if not his business practise.

Microsoft knew there has been many calls to fix many of the shortcomings of the Windows interface, both functionally & aesthetically.

The Start Menu becomes a big mess after you install & uninstall many programs & games over time, and there was no obvious way to organise & clean it.

Many of the software are buried in levels of sub-menu & there was no description for what they do. Over time, your desktop will have so much useless files on it, it becomes unmanageable & you can’t find your programs or files anymore.

Vista introduced a Desktop search function but it was slow & clunky. Windows 7’s version was better but not by much.

According to usage data collected from millions of PCs around the world, Microsoft start to see an emerging trend. People like to pin stuff to the Taskbar & Windows 7 Live Preview were GUI hits that receive universal compliments.

On the mobile front, people were responding well to the new interface on the critically acclaimed Zune HD, which flopped commercially due to Apple’s entrenched iPod & iTunes. The final nail came after iPhones became a huge success.

TabletPCs were still doing poorly because as the resolution becomes higher, it becomes increasingly difficult to use Windows software with Touch, which was the next paradigm in user interaction.

So Microsoft started an experiment by putting an enhanced Zune interface on their next smartphone OS called Windows Phone 7.

Windows Phone 7 & Metro

WP7 launched to mixed reviews due to a lack of critical features & lack of apps but reviewers were mostly positive about the Metro interface because it was fresh & completely different from iOS & Android. It was also smooth & fluid even though the hardware was 3 years old.

The design philosophy lends itself well to the underlying message of sharing in a social context, things that happen to you & how you respond back.

It’s a level of emotion that’s both deep & personal because the idea is for you to connect to the people & things that are important to you while at the same time, not linger too long on the phone.

In & out of the phone and get on with life. This philosophy is completely different from iOS & Android, which wants you to stay with the phone for as long as possible, either to make you spend more money on apps & accessories, or to drive ad revenue.

With WP7, Microsoft was attempting to combine both emotion & productivity into a single expression. Currently, WP7 is hampered by inadequate hardware & legacy software since WP7 OS was descended from WinCE which shares many of the architectural features as the obsoleted Windows 95 16-bit operations.

Things like lack of multi-cpu support, cooperative multitasking, unprotected memory management, etc. prevented Microsoft from using the latest hardware available. Fortunately, the user experience was generally positive with high marks of user satisfaction on Amazon & other e-commerce portals.

Unfortunately, the blogging & Tech publications were unforgiving when comparing the hardware, citing WP7 single-core CPU as being obsoleted even though WP7 run smoother, faster & more stable than many dual-core Android phones & even iPhone 4 in some areas. This negativity has heavy leanings on sales staff who read them for information, because they can’t test every device they sell, which in turn result in poor sales because sales people are not willing to push WP7.

Extending WP7 experience to a larger screen

Lessons learnt from WP7 were directly transferred to Windows 8/RT. The pinable & sizeable Live Tiles, the tight integration of the various apps provided by the OS like People, Calender, Messaging, Email all sync to the cloud & popular social services like Facebook, MS Account (including XBox), Skype, LinkedIn & Twitter. The smooth & fluid interface that works well with Touch & Pen, as well as Keyboard & Mouse.

In terms of hardware, Microsoft never expected iPad to become the huge hit it was. So it was a shock when iPad quickly overtook TabletPC as the dominant tablet within less than a year in 2010. This was just after Windows 7 was launched. Something had to be done!

The answer was the Microsoft Surface & Surface Pro. After years of uninspiring hardware design from OEMs, Microsoft decided to build their own Tablet, answering the calls of TabletPC users worldwide. Granted part of the problem was the Intel x86 CPU but I believe more could be done by the OEM.

Now that Intel’s Clovertrail & Ivy Bridge CPUs are low-power but fast enough for Enterprise & Power users respectively, Microsoft can craft a desirable tablet that is actually productive. The next half of the equation is a desirable software platform to use it with.

The new Start Screen as your new “Desktop”

The Start Menu has been a mainstay since Windows 95 introduced it in 1995. That in itself was a big deal when icons & windows were all there was. Third-party shells like Central Point Desktop (part of PC-Tools for Windows 2.0) extended the Windows 3 Program Manager when power-users like me wanted a more extensible Shell with features like lists & Multi-desktops.

As more people started using Windows & more software becomes available, it’s painfully obvious Program Manager isn’t going to be able to keep up & provide the platform Microsoft wanted to take Windows.

It’s the same with Windows 8. With the number of things you can do with a PC + the usage scenario projected for the new Microsoft Surface, they needed a new Shell. But this time, there’s a new wrinkle… Capacitive Multi-Touch screens.

The Touch interface was inherently inaccurate with your finger covering most of the area you’re targeting. The Windows 7 Desktop interface was modified to compensate for this but it was still frustrating if your TabletPC was very small or has very high resolution.

Windows Phone 7 Tile Based Metro Interface neatly solves this problem & by extension, Windows 8’s as well. These Tiles aren’t useless squares and rectangles. They display Live information that are periodically downloaded from the Internet or corporate intranets so only updated information is presented.

The information is also relevant for the App so you don’t get useless information like Ad bombarding you all the time. However, this concept required traditional Windows developers to learn new skills. Something Microsoft has been pushing since WP7.

It is also the new “Desktop” because if you pick up a Windows RT tablet from November 2012 onwards, you can only run Windows Store app. Traditional Windows software cannot run on Windows RT at all except for a few Microsoft native software like Notepad, Paint & Office 2013.

The good news is, whatever App you bought from Windows Store can be installed on up to 5 devices, be it Windows RT or Windows 8 devices. Yes, Microsoft has made it possible to share apps on many different classes of devices irregardless of their CPU!

For developers, this is huge because if you write a Windows App from 2012 onwards, it can run on ARM, Intel & AMD CPUs! For consumers, they can select computing devices without too much consideration to the underlying CPU architecture. This has never happened before in computer history.

(Note that Windows RT is not compatible with every ARM licensee because each of them add certain features which are incompatible with other licensees, unlike Intel/AMD.)

Insurance against a shift in CPU architectural dominance from Intel x86

This is the future that Microsoft is envisioning & is a bet that eventually, all Windows software will become Apps & legacy desktop software is retired, allowing Microsoft to retire the Desktop for Windows RT completely.

Microsoft is also working with ARM directly to support 64-bit operations to allow for larger RAM & Storage for future Windows RT devices even as Intel is continuing to lower their power consumption while providing more processing power to these new generation of CPUs based on “Haswell”.

This is necessary to ensure the survival & proliferation of the Windows platform in general just in case the market moves towards ARM as the dominant CPU instead of Intel x86 since ALL competing tablets on the market currently are running on CPUs based on ARM.

Of course, for Power-users who need the Desktop for the foreseeable future to run information intensive tasks, we have Windows 8 which runs both legacy software & Windows Apps giving us the best of both worlds.

Seeing that Intel & AMD will always have the more powerful CPU/GPU, x86 isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

For naysayers of Windows RT, having Windows 8 support Windows Apps will ensure that whatever developer create for Windows 8 will (almost) automatically be available for Window RT creating a real Halo effect & ensure Windows RT will have a large number of Apps in the near future.

Windows App & Windows Store as the new preferred distribution channel

Apple iOS introduced the concept of a centralised location where you can download all your apps. For the user, it is much easier to discover useful software. For Apple, it is a huge revenue generator. For developer, the ability to tap the entire installed base of users was an enticing proposition!

In the Windows world, discovering software usually means a trip to the Search engine, which more often than not, throws up a huge list of webpages, some of which have questionable reputation.

Microsoft had success in courting many developers to the WP7 marketplace & they’re confident developers will do the same for Windows 8 & RT due to the humongous Windows installed base. Steve Ballmer recently announced 4 million Windows 8 Pro licenses bought within 4 days of launch. This number did not include Windows 8 licenses that were pre-installed on hardware already & Microsoft Surface 32GB being sold out everywhere. Not a bad start.

Customising YOUR Start Screen

Usability of the new Start Screen will require a new way of thinking but in terms of getting things done & getting to your software or apps, it’s faster than the Start Menu especially if you use Windows keyboard shortcuts a lot.

Management of the various software is also much faster. You can uninstall anything from the Start Screen. You can pin & unpin Software & Apps you use quickly to the Start Menu. You can Group them together so that you can see at a glance where everything is & if there are any updates on their Live Tiles if they’re Windows 8/RT Apps.

It’s also a full-screen affair so all your personal stuff are up front & ready for you to Touch/Click, creating a deep connection between yourself & your Start Screen. Even your name & Account Picture is displayed prominently on the top-right corner making your Start Screen uniquely yours.

You can change your Desktop wallpaper but the Start Screen background is restricted to specific design. Because the Live Tiles take up over 70% of screen real-estate, you can’t use your photos for the Start Screen’s background nor would you want to anyway.

Beyond the Start Screen

Your Start Screen is also synchronised with the Microsoft cloud called Skydrive, which allows you to have a familiar environment across any devices that you login to with your Microsoft Account. You’ll also automatically have 7GB of online cloud storage which you can easily access from your Windows 8 PC or using a browser on any platform.

Neat touches like Picture Password also adds a layer of personalization not common on other platforms.

The new Search also allow the Search bar to find not just Software, Apps, Settings and Files, but also any items within the Apps & its cached and online data.

For example, if you search for “Paris” & click the Weather App, the App will immediately show all cities named Paris & display their weather.

One of the issues with iOS & Android is you can’t copy & paste complex information between Apps. Windows 8/RT allows an app to share information in a pre-determined fashion, allowing users the flexibility of sharing information, not just to friends, but between Apps as well, negating the need to sync to the cloud & back with another app.

One of the things that most people take for granted is printing. iOS & Android printing is severely limited requiring compatible eco-system. Windows 8 naturally support any printers that ever existed with a Windows driver & Windows RT supports many of these same printers with Microsoft converting more printer class drivers for Windows RT as the platform matures.

Since Windows has the broadest peripheral support, you are insured against a piece of hardware not having a corresponding Windows driver. For Windows RT, driver support will hopefully come when the user base increase.

International support

Windows 8/RT also have much better International support versus Windows 7. You no longer need an “Ultimate” license to change Display language & you can even switch it on the fly!

You’d also get the multi-language IME including secondary touch/pen-based handwriting support free of charge for Windows 8 Pro. This used to be an expensive upgrade to the Ultimate version.

Bilingual people like me can finally use Chinese handwriting to input an unfamiliar Chinese word instead of using the much slower hand-stroke method. I assume this will work for many stroke-based writing like Japanese & Korean as well. Just install the Language Pack!

Conclusion

I think you can tell from my article that I’m pretty impressed with Windows 8 Pro. I’ve already upgraded my Fujitsu T4215 TabletPC & have not encountered any problems so far.

However, this TabletPC is 5 years old & lack a Touchscreen. This isn’t something I can upgrade unlike the CPU, RAM & SSD. So, I’m waiting for Microsoft Surface Pro to be launched next year.

There’re many Windows 8 tablets already launched but so far, only the Lenovo Thinkpad 2 excites me besides the uber-cool Surface Pro. Let’s see how Microsoft price the 64GB Surface Pro. If it’s priced too high, I might just buy my first Lenovo.

Opinions

How Windows Phone 8 & Windows 8 can share software

Overview

Microsoft just generated a huge amount of buzz in the press & developer community when Microsoft’s Paul Thurrott confirmed a leak that Windows Phone 8 (WP8) codename “Apollo” will use Windows 8 kernel.

This is a big deal, bigger than what most people realise, because it means that Microsoft can have a standard integrated development environment (IDE) to target Windows 8 (for Intel x86/64 – Wintel), Windows on Arm (WoA) & WP8 (now a WoA)!

So when a developer wrote an app for Windows 8, he can automatically target both Wintel, WoA & with some tweaks for screen dimension, WP8!

What’s the big deal anyway?

Let’s me start by saying I’ve been a software developer for many years since C++ & Visual Basic 6. Unlike many developers these days, I’m what was called a system programmer, meaning I do low-level, machine interface stuff, including Assembler on embedded systems. I stopped coding professionally 8 years ago but I still do some projects here & there. So I’m aware of the going on in the development of Wintel, WP7 world.

Software is created by writing code in a language not unlike English. In order for the code to be recognised, you need the other party to also speak the same language.

Unfortunately, Intel Core i7 or nVidia Tegra-3 or Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU doesn’t speak English, so you need an intermediary. A translator that converts the code into machine language which is just a bunch of ones & zeros. This is the job of the compiler.

There are 2 ways to accomplish this. You can compile code directly into machine language or you can send your code into a translator that converts these code in realtime into machine language.

The advantage of the first approach is speed. The problem is you need to rewrite (port) code from one platform to another.

The second is the interpreter approach. A middleman will translate the code during software running time into machine code for the CPU to execute, hence the term, “runtime”.

The advantage is the ease of porting code from one platform to another. It still takes efforts & time to customise for the environment but at least there are less mundane chore to do/debug. The major problem is speed because the middleman also uses CPU resource. Multicore CPU mask some of the time but there’s still lag.

SO, where does Windows 8 fit into all these CPU discussion anyway?

Windows 8 is an Operating System. It’s job is to manage resources in CPU, memory, storage, network, graphics, user input, etc. The part that manage the hardware is called the kernel, which is itself a special software. The part that you see on the screen is the GUI, which is also software. All the apps that you use must interact with the kernel & GUI.

IIRC, the kernel of Windows Phone 7 is based on Windows CE, which is itself a branch of Windows 95 or earlier. It’s a very mature & stable kernel but doesn’t support multi-core CPU or pre-emptive multi-threading which is why multi-tasking on PocketPC/Windows Mobile always seem to hang or slow the phone with no way to recover but a soft reset. Surprisingly, Android 2/3 seem to share the same problems! But is mitigated somewhat by having multicore CPU.

Windows Phone 7 bypass this limitation by following Apple’s iOS when it was initially launched. No app is allowed to run in the background, except for a few that strictly follows certain parameters. Task switching was minimum, restricted to 5 open screens, not 5 open apps. This severely limited many enterprise apps which required ongoing background processing.

Now unlike Apple, which keeps its iOS & Mac-OS separately. Microsoft seems to want to consolidate their OS as early as 2003 with the MinWin initiative. Windows 7 is based on the Windows NT kernel, which was super robust but very monolithic in that all the services were integrated into the kernel, making it big & hard to debug or extend. Performance was good though because all the services exist in the same memory space.

The problem was, every time a new service is needed, like IPv6, Microsoft had to change the kernel without affecting other components. The complexity gets too much to handle even for a software house as big as Microsoft. The only way was to compartmentalized the kernel. Performance suffered a bit but can be recovered when developers optimise the individual components that were separated from the kernel.

This initiative culminated in Windows 8 using just 600+MB of memory footprint compared to Windows 7 800+MB in a TabletPC configuration. The kernel itself is only tens of MB! Small enough to fit in the future 256MB of RAM on a Windows Phone 7.5.x upgrade called “Tango”.

For WoA, the memory footprint will probably be similar to Wintel because Windows Desktop will also appear in WoA. However, as mentioned, for any developer who needs speed in their desktop apps like Microsoft Office, they will have to port their code & recompile the entire app to work in WoA Desktop environment. Which is why Microsoft was very secretive about whether legacy Windows Apps can run on WoA. My answer is, No. (Unless MS includes VirtualPC on WoA.)

It’s very clear to me that since Microsoft wrote the compiler in Visual Studio IDE & can port the entire Windows to ARM, it’s no problem for them to port MS Office as well! However, legacy apps compiled for Intel CPU will not work on WoA. Developers need to port their code.

The good news is, the new Visual Studio will probably support compiling to both Intel x86/64 & ARM all in the same IDE! Devs may need to set certain parameters but they do not need to invest in another IDE or train/hire new developers. Visual Studio will handle the differences in platform like it handles the difference in Intel & AMD CPU.

This is excellent news for Enterprise customers because it simplifies managing their business by providing a single platform that can run on Intel PCs in the office & WoA laptops/tablets for their mobile workforce. Intel CPU is much more powerful but ARM CPU uses much less power so having Windows on both platform solves a dilemma that has dogged the industry for more than 10 years. This is the reason why the iPad is so successful because even though Bill Gates envisioned a tablet future, it was Steve Jobs who realised the vision!

However, Steve had to compromise on functionality on the iPad because Mac-OS wasn’t optimised for low-memory/CPU computing. On top of that, Mac-OS was compiled for Intel CPU & it will take them time to find a good compiler to recompile for ARM, plus all the engineering needed to port the OS.

What about WP8?

Most of the 60,000 apps on WP7 are written in Silverlight & XNA. Both are interpreted code which requires a Runtime. This Runtime is also an integral of Windows 8.

Now that we know WP8 Apollo uses the NT kernel, it automatically means that WP8 supports multicore CPU, full pre-emptive multi-threading, multi-GPU & multi-displays on-top of the other regular stuff you find on iPhones & Android phones.

Since Microsoft has to compile Silverlight/XNA to work on WoA & Windows Phone is actually an ARM computer with a small screen, it means that there is NO difference between WoA Silverlight/XNA & Silverlight/XNA on Windows Phone as well! Do I even need to mention Silverlight/XNA is already in Windows 8 for x86/64?

Ultimately, this means that developers can use Visual Studio to compile speedy Native apps like MS Office for Wintel, WoA & WP8. If the situation doesn’t require speed, they can more easily program in Silverlight/XNA & enjoy low power consumption for Wintel, WoA & WP8 as well. The only major work is to change the interface to fit the screen & that’s it!

Conclusion

Microsoft has announced a range of screen size for the next version of Windows 8/WP8 & the reason is very simple.

All Windows machines will share a common interface & work the same. After adjustment for screen size, Silverlight developers can also easily target WP8 & Windows 8.

Native App developers can also easily target Wintel or WoA allowing the new platforms to gain huge number of apps in a short time. Having tons of apps drive adoption which is what ensures the survival of the platform.

I can’t wait! 8)

Opinions

What a Windows 8 Tablet should be…

* Follow-up of this article here “OEMs can’t do it, so Microsoft DID IT!”*

This article is about what I think a Windows 8 Tablet should be like.

A bit of background… My first Tablet PC was an Acer TravelMate C110 running Windows XP Tablet Edition. My current is a Fujitsu Lifebook T4210 (upgraded with Bluetooth, 4GB RAM, T7200 CPU & Self-encrypting SSD). The current machine started life with WinXP Tablet as well & was dual-booted with Vista, & finally replaced with Windows 7 Pro 32bit. SO I have a total of 8 years+ of Tablet usage.

I’m looking for a new Windows Tablet because my current doesn’t have a Touchscreen & it’s not something I can upgrade.

Based on my years of using Tablets, I have come to several conclusions which I’ll share here.

The new Tablet OS, Windows 8

Windows 8 is a rethinking of how people will use Tablets to Create Content in the future, versus, Consuming Content on the iPad & Android tablets. It’s made to run special Windows 8 applications + run your good old MS Office & Photoshop, etc.

By supporting 2 different mindsets, Content Consumption + Creation, Microsoft is trying to allow people who like iPads to enjoy ease-of-use & good battery life anywhere anytime. They are also trying to appeal to the office worker who wants a fast, stable & productive platform to get on with work to make the money to enjoy life. There is actually a 3rd mindset which isn’t well-defined yet, that of the gamer/home entertainment with XBox Live integration so we should have to wait to see how that works out.

Microsoft new vision is this. While on the move or onthe sofa, you’d be carrying a light-weight tablet that runs low-power content consumption apps from Microsoft Store & enjoy long battery life. When in the Office, you can plug it into a dock that’s connected to your Keyboard/Mouse/20″ monitor to work & run your old MS Office & Photoshop, etc.

After you’re done, you can bring the tablet home & plug it into your Home Entertainment center where you can play your games or watch streaming video on your 55″ 3D LED TV. That’s the vision Microsoft is pushing for Windows 8. Can it work? Yes! All the technology needed are there, WiDi, DLNA, 4G, HDMI…

Now Windows 8 Beta is coming out soon & should be almost feature complete. It should be interesting for people who has Touchscreen Tablets/Slate because they get to experience this vision first-hand. Some of the suggestions from Developers have been adopted in the Beta & it’ll be interesting to see how far MS goes to satisfy End-users when the Release Candidate comes out by mid-2012.

Hardware, the physical tablet must feel good & look good!

Many manufacturers have also pledged to launch Win8 Slates in H2 2012 after their Android Tablets fail to make a dent in iPad sales. If these new Slates are less than SGD$1000, it will attract buyers (with enough advertising & education.)

The current batch of Windows tablets (in Singapore), Acer W500, Asus B121 & Fujitsu Q550 all have fatal flaws that makes them unattractive to buyers. Chief among them is Windows 7 of course. There’re too much bad press about Windows 7 being a lousy tablet OS. Some of the complaints are true but many the reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about. Let me say again, Windows 7 is a competent Tablet OS when configured right.

It’s easy to configure Windows 7 to be easy to navigate using Touch. All the settings are inside the Control Panel (bigger icons/text & space in between/super large themes). StartBar can be docked to the side & gesture controls can be used to navigate the interface.

The problem, of course, is these things should be pre-configured by the Tablet makers themselves, not the end-users. Slapping a custom layer over Windows 7 desktop isn’t the answer as well! Therefore, the fault lies in these makers, Acer, Asus & even Fujitsu who just slap Windows 7 in as if they’re selling Desktops. No customisations whatsoever!

On top of that, these tablets are either too heavy or too bland or too slow. Take a look at the new Nokia Lumia 800 & 900. People naturally gravitate towards the better looking device even if the specs aren’t as fantastic as a dull looking but super-fast one! Early iPhones & iPads are the BEST examples!

The brains behind the operations, the CPU

The other flaw is CPU. Intel Atom CPU + motherboard + chipset was too expensive for its performance. Being single-core with low bus speed + a GPU that’s slower than molasses. It can’t even play a decent 720p video without dropping most of the frames.

The coming generation of Dual-core Atom CPU (Cedar Trail) should finally solve the problem unless Intel screws up somehow. Dual-core, higher bus speed, support for 4GB RAM + a PowerVR GPU should allow 720p video playback (clear enough for a 10-12″ screen or a 55″ TV). A typical person using this tablet for media consumption & business usage should have no complains about lag. Gamers wouldn’t be interested in Atom CPU of course but home entertainment is definitely doable!

Makers of tablet (Asus) also shouldn’t be using Core i5 in their Tablets. It adds weight & $ cost for heat dissipation & reduce battery life, or they have to use a bigger battery thus increasing weight. Considering Core i5 + chipset uses >30W while Atom + chipset uses <10W. A 4-cell battery powering an Atom N2800 should last >4 hours of actual usage with WiFi on & screen at half-brightness.

SSD prices have come down by a lot on the lower-end, 32-64GB. If storage is not enough, a 32GB SDcard or MicroSD is also dirt cheap. With all these drop in prices, I do not see why a Win8 Slate should be more than $1000.

Let’s guesstimate the costs of the perfect Windows 8 tablet…

MS Windows 8 Home OEM license – $130
Intel Atom N2800 CPU – USD47
4GB DDR2/3-800 SODIMM RAM – $50
Kingston SSDNow Self-encrypting 32GB – $100
IPS 10″ LED screen – est. $150
Li-ion 4-cell battery – est. $100
Motherboard + WiFi + Bluetooth – est. $80
Chassis + Gorilla glass + Touchscreen + Active Digitizer – est. $120

Total around $800 including box + packaging! Maybe I’m optimistic but I think $1000 for this Tablet is entirely possible! If you include branding/advertising, it’s still an additional $100 at most. Still near to the price of a White iPad 2 32GB. Tablet makers can even throw in a 32GB SDcard to act like a secondary storage & only add another $20 to BOM cost.

We can see from the Android camp that users are demanding higher & higher performance by using Quad-core CPUs & integrated high-performance GPU to save power & improve Android’s laggy nature. The irony is, Windows 7 is super optimised already & Intel is simply lagging behind on the low-power front. Nobody I know liked their Netbook due to the many (artificial) limitations that Intel put on the Atom CPU. The only decent Atom is the Cedar Trail CPU that I just mentioned but the price is not low either.

Intel should watch out since Windows 8 will be able to run on some ARM-based platform like Nvidia Tegra & Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. I’m not mentioning ARM-based Windows 8 because older Wintel apps like MS Office cannot run on ARM-based Windows 8 unless Microsoft emulate x86 platform on ARM which will be a major engineering undertaking, not to mention the high licensing fees they have to pay Intel. I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure MS will not do this for many years to come.

Conclusions

So the question is, why aren’t PC makers chunning out great tablets? Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a strong enough vision until Apple launched the iPad or Microsoft was so pre-occupied with the Anti-Trust lawsuits that they didn’t listen to customer demands for the past 10 years. Or even maybe because Bill Gates has left the building.

We have been pushing for lighter tablets with better battery life for the longest time but while Sony & Lenovo have 1KG laptops with >8 hour battery, they didn’t translate these to the Tablet form factor. It has been extremely fustrating for Tablet users like me for the longest time, but finally it seems that our prayers are being answered with Windows 8.

In conclusion, 4 things must come together for the Windows 8 Tablet to be successful or better yet, be desirable.

1. Windows 8 is already super efficient in terms of CPU/Memory performance. It’s the Interface that’s the biggest bet for Microsoft. So far the Metro design language seems to be winning praise from Press & developers. Windows 8 has 2 interfaces, Metro for media consumption & traditional for media creation. If Microsoft listens to End-users during the Beta & makes the necessary adjustment, Windows 8 Metro could be wildly successful. Many people are already praising the Metro interface on the Xbox 360 & Windows Phone 7 Mango, so chances are good.

2. Hardware makers MUST make their tablet shine! Nokia has shown that with a beautiful device like the Lumia 800 & 900 + enough advertising, people will WANT to get it! Apple basically made a name for themselves around simple beautiful design with tons of advertising. That’s why there are calls for Nokia to make a Win8 tablet based on that polycarbonate shell! I certainly would love a Lumia tablet but that HP Slate is cool as well!

3. Intel must support Windows 8 by making a CPU/chipset that’s fast enough & cheap enough. So far the Intel Atom CPU has been a joke in the market. More than anything, users were not satisfied with Netbook due to lag. It’s ok for the processing to be slow but it’s NOT ok for the mouse to stop working after clicking something. This is the problem with a single-core CPU on a desktop OS.

4. Price. Fujitsu Stylistic has been the pinnacle of TabletPC in the Slate format for many years, but few companies & even fewer individuals can afford the $5000-6000 price tag. So long as manufacturers stick to Intel Atom Cedar Trail, they can afford to use cheaper components. These few years has battled the economy of many countries. Having a fast enough tablet at an affordable price will be a major factor in determining how many buyers they can attract which will further drive adoption rates.

To say that I’m excited about new Win8 product launches later this year is an understatement, especially with all the cool Ultrabooks that these same makers can make. If they (Microsoft/Intel/Manufacturers) get the above 4 points right, we could get a iPad killer. Until then, we can wish & pray.