Sunday, February 20, 2011

10:10 and Microsoft

My 10:10 article earlier today got me thinking about another topic.  Last year I noticed that Microsoft had signed up for 10:10.  I admit to having had a little intellectual snigger at this as Microsoft must preside over one of the biggest carbon footprints on the planet in the form of its Windows operating system.
It's easy to knock Windows and I am certainly not the first person to do it.  I also understand that Windows is one of the biggest, if not the biggest software project ever undertaken.  As such that it works at all is a minor miracle . After all many such projects have simply collapsed under their own weight.  Neither am I a Linux bigot; I still use Windows for the simple reason that it is the closest thing there is to a standard in the PC space.   No, the problem with Windows is not that Microsoft is incompetent, far from it. The problem is that it's simply too old.

Windows was written when computer hardware was much less capable than it is today.  For example, It had to make use of virtual memory to support all of its features.  Now the [SDRAM] memory on my PC, at 8Gbyte is 20x as big as the hard disk of the first computer I ran windows on but I still cannot turn off the virtual memory feature.  As a result it sits there "strumming" the hard disk even when I do nothing.  Worse by far is the automatic update system.  Think of all the servers, the network infrastructure and the sheer number of PCs involved to keep the OS alive today.  And all, it seems, for nought.  My Windows 7 installation, though less than 6 months old, is fatally flawed and requires (according to my web research) a rebuild but I don't have the time or indeed the heart to do it. This is all a waste of energy, both figuratively and literally.

The Intel turn-around over the NetBurst (Pentium 4) architecture is now very well documented.  Pentium 4 CPUs, in their push for more and more MHz were not just wasteful of power, but were to such an extent that they were starting to push the thermal dissipation problem to its limits. At the time I would only consider AMD CPUs as I valued MIPs/watt over raw MIPs.  I applaud Intel's courage in making the turn around to achieve a 4 fold reduction in power consumption while achieving a similar increase in CPU power.   Indeed their 2011 "Sandy Bridge" architecture with its dedicated hardware acceleration is yet another step in the right direction.

So could Intel's success be replicated by Microsoft?  Could they make a Windows compatible operating system from the ground up?  In theory, Yes, though many of us still remember Longhorn!  However all incumbents have a disadvantage and Microsoft shows no signs of having the will to fix Windows.  Only now, for instance, are they talking of porting Windows to run on the ARM.  I suspect this is merely a reaction to the disruptive force of the I-pad and its derivatives.All this reminds me of a recent PC-Pro article in which Hermann Hauser "Believes that Intel's days are numbered" and that ARM will inevitably kill Intel.  I have a huge respect for Dr Hauser.  I have had the privilege to work with him three times, the first of which, coincidently, was at Acorn at the time the ARM CPU was designed.    One of Hermann's favourite stories was of a visit from Bill Gates, who was then trying to peddle MSDOS.  Hermann sent him away saying he had superior technology which, of course, he did.  However you have to ask yourself why is Bill Gates now a billionaire when Hermann is only a millionaire?  Indeed Acorn had local area networking in 1984, long before Ethernet was brought to market yet it failed to capitalise on its technical superiority. Hermann, then, is a clever man but is not a perfect Industry barometer.  As per my previous article today,  I do agree with Dr Hauser that we are entering a new wave of devices with "good enough" technology.  That these devices are battery powered is great news for our global carbon footprints as any OS that runs on them must have power consumption high on its priority list.  As a new medium there is no need to be compatible with legacy programs so there is no need for Microsoft's OS.  To my mind that makes porting Windows to tablets both futile and irrelevant.  I think the jury is out as to whether ARM will beat Intel.  It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that one way or another Microsoft's carbon footprint is about to get a lot smaller.

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