Microsoft has some problems. Windows 8 has been out a few months now and sales are already slowing. It has received some praise for its new look and feel but even more criticism around its execution of a single Operating System (OS) for both desktops and tablets. Rightfully so. Not that that the idea is bad, it’s just difficult to mesh two completely different use cases. The same way flying cars are a good idea, but hard to make without so many compromises that they are both difficult to fly and to drive.
Putting that aside, Windows’ biggest on-going problem is security. It’s a constant battle between viruses and Windows updates. While Windows’ dominance of the market is a major factor in its being the biggest target for viruses, the Windows architecture practically invites them. One likely reason is that Windows grants all users administrator access by default. This means that just by opening that bad email attachment, users grant malicious software access to everything. Also, it’s so easy to hide malicious software behind the scenes so that users have no idea that it’s running in the background.
Windows also has a huge problem with performance. The longer you use it, the slower it gets. Windows pushes files so closely together on the hard drive there’s no room for them to grow. If any file grows too big for its spot on the disk, it gets chopped up into smaller piece and spread around. This is known as file fragmentation and causes Windows to have to reassemble the file again when it’s needed and it can take a surprisingly long time. Many already know that you can run the Windows defragmentation program that rejoins the fractured files, but it causes the same problem of bunching them too closely together again. This requires you to run the program on a frequent basis and it’s not exactly known for running quickly.
These problems have been with Windows for a long time. Version to version, they don’t change. The sad and difficult news for Microsoft is that the only way for them to solve these problems is to totally get rid of the current architecture and start fresh (say good-bye to DOS and Windows Registry). Certainly, rewriting Windows is much harder than continuing to patch it but it’s also very shortsighted. Think of all the time and money that goes into patching Windows. It’s better to take time to do it right than to just continue kicking the can down the road. Luckily, there is a way for them to create a stable and exciting new OS without having to totally start from scratch.
The answer is Unix.
If you can get over the idea of Windows running a Unix kernel, you begin to see the potential. First off, Unix’s track record for security is exemplary. One reason is because Unix users do not have full administrator (root) access. Users run in an unprivileged mode so it’s far less likely that a user can do anything catastrophic accidentally. Even if they click on that virus, it would not have access to corrupt or change any system files. At the same time, it’s easy enough to enter the root password should there be any actual administrative worked be required. Because of this, Unix is widely used for High Performance Computing (HPC) in government and university data centers, not to mention private cloud. The words “Unix” and “cluster” go together better than “cake” and “ice cream.” Wherever security is paramount, Unix is there.
Unix also offers several different file systems to choose from, none of which require users to frequently defragment them. Not to say files can’t get fragmented but less common. All these file systems put a lot of empty space between files, which gives them room to grow, and reduces the need to break them into smaller pieces. If the file ever runs out of room, the file system tries to move the file to where it can fit it before trying to break it into pieces.
So by simply starting with a Unix base, Windows has already solved the major security and performance problems that have been plaguing it forever. Also, that leaves Microsoft to focus on one thing: building an intuitive user experience that runs on top if it, which we know they can do. They already redesign it for every major release of Windows. Designing one to run on top of Unix wouldn’t be too much more work than that.
Not to say initially there wouldn’t be some resistance to the idea. In the past there has been a kind of rivalry between Windows and Unix users, so there’s no doubt combining the two would cause quite a shock. But that’s the kind of shock that generates interest, and interest is just what Microsoft needs right now.
Of course, designing a new OS around a Unix base is not a new idea. Two of Microsoft’s biggest competitors have already done it and quite successfully. Apple used a type of Unix kernel called BSD in its design of the OS for the Mac (OSX) and the iPhone/iPad (iOS). Google used the Linux kernel 2.6 in its design of Android. Most would agree that these OS’s are some of the best.
So the idea, albeit radical, is not totally out of the realm of possibility, to be sure, but it has the potential to give Microsoft the best version of Windows yet without having to completely go back to the drawing board.