MS plans response to HP's webOS ... in 2013
After Google, Motorola, and even Baidu
Hewlett-Packard's recent presentation of its plans to place webOS at the heart of a broad cloud strategy highlighted a route that Microsoft, Google and Amazon will also take, in their different ways.
Essential to HP's desire to offer an end-to-end cloud platform – giving it control of a vast range of web apps and devices – is a new-style operating system that can be embedded in each of those end points. This is not a traditional OS: it does not need to participate in the OS wars and can live alongside other systems. It is stripped-down in function and footprint and largely based on the browser.
The most famous example of this approach is Google's upcoming Chrome OS, which will also be targeted at end-to-end cloud activities, not yet another device platform (and so will live happily alongside Android and even Windows).
But Microsoft has its own similar plan in the wings, in the shape of the ServiceOS project, a cloud platform that will debut after Windows 8 (which will unify all the various Windows flavours, including mobile) but will certainly not be an alternative to it. And not to be outdone, it seems that Motorola and even China's Baidu may have similar plans.
Microsoft researchers unveiled some details of the ServiceOS project last summer, referring to it as a "multi-principal OS-based browser" for controlling web services and devices. Now, as tracked with insight by ZDnet's Mary-Jo Foley, ServiceOS is evolving more rapidly. A new abstract posted by lead researcher Helen Wang explains that ServiceOS supports the SaaS (software as a service) approach, also a heavy focus for HP.
Using the platform, a "master copy of a user's applications resides in the cloud and cached on end devices", whether these run Windows Phone, post-Windows 8 or browser. The abstract shows how rich web content, such as a YouTube video, could be embedded in a traditional Word application without compromising security, bringing together the old Microsoft and the new web worlds under one umbrella that is still controlled by the Windows giant.
ServiceOS, previously codenamed Gazelle, has a larger OS layer than Google's full-browser Chrome OS platform. The browser itself is isolated from this OS layer for greater security and becomes the key system for access to web services.
In an earlier outline, Wang and co-researcher Alex Moschuk wrote: "Existing browsers rely on resource access control and sharing mechanisms built into traditional OSs. Unfortunately, such mechanisms are ill-suited for many complex web services, such as those embedding mash-ups of other web services."
ServiceOS, then, builds resource-sharing and access control into the heart of the browser, creating a less unwieldy OS. ServiceOS manages many resources from the processor and memory to devices like cameras and network bandwidth.
As usual with Microsoft projects, ServiceOS is fascinating and potentially wide-ranging in its impact, but it certainly won't be ahead of the market in timescales. HP has managed to reinvent webOS – from device OS to cloud platform – sufficiently nimbly that the new strategy will have some commercial fruits next year.
Similarly, Chrome OS is available, though for now it is behaving like a conventional client OS on netbooks and some prototype "cloudbook" products. Like HP, Google is likely to start showing off its system working as a full cloud offering from 2012.
ServiceOS has very uncertain commercial timelines but the best bet would be launch after Windows 8, probably in 2013. Admittedly it will not have to go through the chrysalis phase of acting like a device OS, but will head straight to end-to-end web services, but this is still a long wait.
Motorola building on Azingo?
There may also be a long delay before we see real results of a rumoured project at Motorola Mobility, with the firm reported to be developing its own web-based mobile OS. Like webOS and Chrome OS, this is unlikely to be targeting the same role as Android, of which Motorola is an avid supporter.
Instead, it will focus on the new wave of devices that are almost entirely geared to cloud services and streamed content, with stripped-down operating systems based on the browser (which can, like webOS, coexist with traditional systems like Android or Windows).
According to sources who spoke to Information Week, Motorola has hired engineers from Apple and Adobe to head up its project, and the firm did not deny the initiative, though it insisted it remained "committed to Android as an operating system".
Many of the headlines are sure to assume a new OS would eventually be an alternative to Android, which has issues such as fragmentation and over-control by Google. But in fact, a new-style browser-as-OS is a far more likely aim, and not necessarily incompatible with Android support.
Deutsche Bank analyst Jonathan Goldberg told the magazine: "I know they're working on a new OS. I think the company recognises that they need to differentiate, and they need options, just in case. Nobody wants to rely on a single supplier."
However, differentiation is not necessarily the issue with Android, given that Motorola has put considerable effort into creating its own overlay – Motoblur – and integrating non-Google elements, including the Baidu search engine, for some carriers. Far more serious is whether Android will continue to meet the needs of OEMs and operators when mobile cloud services become mainstream, even though that will take years.
And most observers will shudder at the thought of Motorola developing its own software platform – not its greatest strength – and going back to the bad old days when it supported several OSs, often flip-flopping between them. "They don't want to give Wall Street and developers the impression that they're going back to the Motorola of old where they're working on 50 million operating systems at once," Goldberg said.
A year ago, Motorola acquired Azingo, maker of the eponymous mobile OS, complete with WebKit browser, a widgets framework and customizable user interface. This was seen as a sign Motorola might work on its own platform in future, especially since Sanjay Jha, now CEO of Motorola Mobility, had recently said: "I've always felt that owning your OS is important, provided you have an ecosystem, you have all the services, and you have an ability and the scale to execute on keeping that OS at the leading edge."
Baidu's box computing
Also said to be considering a mobile web software platform of its own is Baidu. The UK Financial Times reported that the company was creating a "light operating system". This would not see the light of day for three to five years, according to sources, and so is likely to be targeting the new browser/OS wave too, rather than seeking to outdo Android – despite Google's challenges in Baidu's native China.
It seems the reports come from a project Baidu has described before: to put the search box at the heart of the user interface. CEO Robin Li said: "In the future, one second, you turn on the device, and you can start using the box. That's our mission for the future of the internet." Baidu has already integrated an apps engine with its search facility so that applications can be launched directly from the search box.
The company was working very closely with Symbian, though that is likely to change now. Last June, Baidu formed a joint venture with the Symbian Foundation to develop and promote its concept of "box computing". The new initiative, the Box Computing Joint Laboratory, hopes to draw in other vendors and carriers, to support Baidu's platform, originally unveiled the previous summer.
Box Computing was launched on the PC, allowing users to bypass the notebook's usual boot-up processes and access the web and key applications directly from the search box with "instant-on". The aim of the Symbian Alliance was to bring the same capability to smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices and the project has presumably given rise to the new reports of a mobile OS.
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