The future of Windows: Linux and a built-in Xbox?


A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how Windows could move to a Linux kernel, as a cost-saving strategy for Microsoft. Windows would be rebuilt as a custom GUI layer and set of services that runs on top of Linux. Legacy Windows applications would run under virtualisation, marking the end of development of the Windows kernel and OS. After giving it some more thought, there is one rather large problem with an otherwise plausible idea – gaming. The PC has an enormous catalogue of Windows games, and this is a major benefit that keeps people on the platform.

Gaming apart, there are far fewer blockers for moving to Linux than there were ten years ago – we rely less on Office and other productivity applications because we have alternatives such as cloud services. But games do present a problem – Steam tried to build a gaming platform on Linux but the size of the catalogue is tiny in comparison, and a lack of investment in drivers means there is usually a performance gap. For a huge library of games that can run on a massive array of hardware configurations, Win32/64 and the DirectX graphics library are unparalleled.

So how could our idea of a new Linux platform with a Windows GUI and Win32/64 compatibility layer accommodate DirectX games? Well it turns out that a very similar problem has already been solved – by Microsoft themselves. The Xbox One console makes clever use of virtualisation to run apps and games in separate virtual machines on top of a lightweight hypervisor. It enables the impressive trick of Xbox games running live in a window on the Xbox home screen. When this hypervisor solution was first announced it sounded like a solution that could incur a performance penalty but it is now clear that  Microsoft’s engineers were able to sidestep this.

Taking the hypervisor idea a step further, the Linux Windows of the future could use virtualisation to divide and conquer the problem of migrating to a more secure Unix-based kernel while still keeping compatibility with DirectX games.

There are two different ways to solve this problem:

  1. A hypervisor boots the new Linux-based Windows platform, which is solely for new apps, and a separate virtual machine runs DirectX games and older Win32/64 applications.
  2. A hypervisor boots the new Linux-based Windows platform which runs new apps and contains an embedded Win32/64 virtual machine for older applications. A separate native Win32/64 instance runs purely for gaming, which is very similar to the game virtual machine that the Xbox One already runs. It’s an elegant solution that cleanly separates gaming and applications at run time.

The second option looks preferable because it cleanly separates the application and gaming sides of Windows, and it aligns the PC nicely with the Xbox platform, which is a direction Microsoft have been moving in for some time. This option also appears more flexible for future rewrites and consolidation – the kernel of the gaming VM could be stripped back and re-engineered because games use a smaller subset of the Windows API than regular apps.

In the future, perhaps all PC’s will be Xboxes?

How long will Trump last in office? 3 years at most

Trump has only been in office for a few weeks and people are already wondering how long he will last. Will he resign, be impeached or even assassinated? Or will he defy his critics and last the full two terms as he suggested in that dire press briefing at Trump Tower back in January?

Let’s get the easy one out of the way – he is extremely unlikely to be assassinated. Just like his predecessors he will have excellent security, and the kind of people likely to bear arms probably support him anyway. During the presidential campaign, Trump gained support from gun owners by saying Hillary wanted to take away guns, and even made a vague suggestion that someone should stop her by shooting her.

Impeachment is harder to predict, although even at this early stage there are possibilities. Investigations into his business interests show that they might not have been severed as cleanly as promised. There is also the more visible matter of his disregard for the US Judicial System which goes as high as the Supreme Court. To make matters worse, he has made enemies within his own Republican party, and government departments such as the CIA.

What is more likely is a resignation before the end of his first term. His approval rating a few weeks after entering office is just 41%. That’s especially bad given that a massive campaign to secure voter approval and win the election has only just finished. Usually a president starts with a high approval rating and it tails off as the term progresses. Going south from 41% is going to be unpleasant. There are tough times ahead for both the United States and Trump.

The most likely reason for Trump to resign is because of who he is and the life he has led. His story is not one of rags to riches, it’s riches to riches. He’s led a sheltered and privileged life, living in a bubble of ‘yes men’. Criticism or even constructive feedback is not something he will have had much exposure to. As a TV personality he understands that you live and die by your popularity ratings and whether people are talking about you. He shows clear signs of not being able to ignore or deal with criticism. And Trump has been the target for significant criticism, protest and negative TV coverage. This was happening before the election result but it’s intensified since he moved into the White House. His social media platform of choice is full of angry tweets from all over the world.

It’s easy to think of the President of the United States as a very powerful man, and Trump certainly is, but there is also a lot of evidence that the man behind the job title is insecure and craves acceptance. Some of the opinions and policies that are making him unpopular aren’t even his own, but originate from people like Steve Bannon. That wont make it any easier to deal with criticism and a dwindling approval rating.

Trump currently appears to be a man in a living hell, where a dream to become the most powerful man in America somehow came true and he has woken up to a reality that is far removed from the dream. He’s isolated in the White House, and is apparently obsessed with watching his critics on CNN. If you don’t like him, take some comfort in the fact that he now exists in his own personal Twilight Zone.

Assuming Trump is still in the job after two years, he will have to deal with mid-term elections. It’s normal even for a popular president to lose ground in the mid-terms, but Trump is likely to suffer a huge blow. A good proportion of his voters were sold on pledges to end corruption, bring jobs home and take on Wall Street, but these already feel like distant memories. His more extreme policies and erratic behaviour will cost even more votes.

After the mid-terms, the job of president will become even more challenging if the majority in congress is lost, as Obama found during both his terms. A year of roadblocks in Congress on top of being chipped away at by his critics on Twitter and numerous mainstream media outlets is going to take it’s toll. 

By the time his third year starts he will have had enough.

Fixing British Politics Part 2: Enough of the broken promises

During an election campaign, a political party will set out it’s vision of how the country will be transformed when they get into power. As you would expect, it’s a positive message, containing the political equivalent of palm trees and sandy beaches. Nobody wants to hear about how they might find it harder to get a job, or have to pay more taxes. The problem with this whole charade is that the vision is usually rather non-committal. It might sound impressive but the use of weasel words ensures that the number of genuine promises being made is surprisingly small.

By the end of the term in office, there is often a significant disparity between what was promised and what was delivered. A memorable recent example is the broken commitment of the Liberal Democrats to scrap university tuition fees, and during the Obama presidency in the US there are many more examples.

In the competitive business environments where many of us work, this sort of behaviour is unacceptable. We all know of someone who found themselves out of a job because they failed to deliver a critical project or manage a department properly.

While it’s good for government to have a vision, it’s less important today because our society has already been built. We are now in the process of incrementally improving it, so the focus should be on delivery and management. Massive changes on the scale of the welfare state and the national health service are almost unheard of.

So why are governments not held accountable to their election manifesto in a formal way? And is it even viable to do so? Running the country is a difficult task and unexpected events take place that could significantly impact the priorities of a government. Would it really be fair to tear apart the Japanese government for failing to deliver on promises when they had to deal with a massive nuclear catastrophe? Also, no government works in isolation – it has to work with other nations and organisations like the EU and the UN.

Clearly, it’s not as simple as creating a checklist from an election manifesto and blindly assessing a government against it without applying some judgement. But even so, is it appropriate to have no accountability whatsoever, to allow manifestos to say things that politicians know have little chance of becoming reality?

I believe a party running for election should include a concrete list of the projects and programmes it intends to deliver. And at the end of the term of office, that list should be independently scored. An overall score should be lenient – given the constraints and shifting priorities faced by any government, delivering even 60% of the original plan is probably a commendable achievement. But over time, the rating should improve.

If shifting priorities mean that new projects and programmes must be started, they should be grouped into a referendum vote because they diverge from what the public originally voted for. Obviously, any emergency measures to deal with natural or humanitarian disasters would have to be exempt from this process.

While it is possible to find web sites that rate presidents and prime ministers on their record against election promises, I want government itself to embrace this rather than leaving it to third parties. They should rate themselves accurately and take pride (or disappointment) in their scorecard.

Fixing British Politics Part 1: More Referendums, not less

In July 2016 we held a major national referendum on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. This was an political gamble which attempted to settle a lengthy and bitter divide in British politics that was being exploited by niche parties like UKIP. The somewhat unexpected result was a narrow majority in favour of leaving. In the aftermath of the referendum, we can point to many issues, but the two most obvious flaws were:

  • Facts – both sides ran their campaigns poorly, with highly negative campaigning from the Remainers and a lack of vision from the Leave side. As a result I don’t believe the public had a real grasp of the situation and what was at stake. We were fed soundbites such as “£350 million a week goes to the EU”, and “economic ruin if we leave”. Neither were true. We had endless TV debates where politicians argued over the case for staying in the EU, but there was always someone from the other side arguing just as passionately to leave. Then there was the press – an ever-present blight on British politics, with bitter and misleading reporting from the likes of the Daily Mail. Were the British public really equipped to take in all of this and filter the lies from the truth?
  • Voting strategies – some of the Leave votes were protest votes against the Government, the EU, or even the establishment in general. Given the disenfranchisement and trust issues already explored on this blog, this is quite understandable. The trouble with protest voting is that it’s somewhat lazy because there is no requirement to think about the issue in any detail, and as a result those voters failed to accurately answer the question that was asked of them. I suspect that our political establishment will deal with this by problem by never having another referendum, eliminating the chance of another result that goes against establishment expectations. The excuse will be that the public simply cannot be trusted to make complex decisions.

I believe that the answer to the woefully-executed 2016 referendum is to “lean into the pain” and have more of them, not less. Holding regular referendums on a wide range of issues must surely be the single biggest thing we could do to re-engage people with politics. The possibilities are endless – imagine a Conservative government is in power but holds a referendum on whether to increase taxes to fund the NHS properly. That could lead to a number of interesting outcomes, such as right-wing voters being able to “switch sides” for something they believe in, and support a choice which might traditionally be perceived as socialist. The opposite is of course true – left wing voters might opt to privatise an industry because they’ve had enough of government bureaucracy and inefficiency.

It sounds like a much more robust decision-making process than lurching between left wing and right wing governments every ten years or so, and letting them spend years undoing each others work. Frequent referendums would mean that it would be less important which party was in power. When the party we don’t like wins an election, we usually retreat into a sulk for four years and hope for a different result next time. Frequent referendums would keep us all engaged in the running of our country.

Getting people comfortable with regular voting on a wide range of issues will have the benefit of taking political bias out of referendums. Instead of “sticking it to the man”, the chances of rational voter thought on the issue increase. There should be other positive effects such as people taking more personal responsibility for their opinions and the way they vote. Sooner or later, everyone will feel the effects of the decisions they make at referendums, no matter how small.

It’s unlikely that this process would need significant oversight or regulation, but any proposed referendum must be reviewed independently before being launched, to ensure it is a sound proposition and the arguments are clear and factual.

The EU referendum was a major decision, so the process ran for a long time and was expensive. A more frequent referendum schedule sounds costly, but each instance would be on a smaller scale than the EU one. Switzerland has held an average of nine referendums a year over the last 20 years.

Just imagine how different the world could be today if there had been a referendum on going to war in Iraq without a UN resolution.

2016 – the year where it all caught up with us

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he takes the stage for a campaign event in Dallas, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

This is a post about the political situation in 2016 and it’s root causes. It is written from the perspective of a UK citizen.

It’s been a strange year. We have experienced two major political upsets – Brexit and Trump, and there is almost certainly more to come. In the weeks following the US election, the Italian Prime Minister lost his job in a referendum vote, and Marine Le Pen is expected to make major gains in the French elections in April.

It seems that collectively, we’ve had enough. People say they’ve had enough of listening to experts, enough of unelected bureaucrats and enough of all our jobs going abroad or being taken by immigrants. In the UK, we were told that leaving the EU would hurt us financially but we did it anyway. In the US, Hillary Clinton was the most qualified presidential candidate ever, having already spent eight years in the White House alongside her husband, and another four years as Secretary of State. But a vote for Hillary was also a vote for the status quo, so she lost to business man and TV celebrity with no political experience at all.

There are many different causes behind these events, but I believe the biggest part of it is that the concerns and needs of the public have repeatedly been ignored in favour of other interests, and it’s been going on for too long. As a result of this, there are major issues of trust and engagement between the public and the political system.

Iraq War

In 2003, the UK went to war despite the largest public protests seen in decades. To try and make the case for war, the Government published intelligence that led us to believe that Saddam Hussein was developing chemical weapons and was a direct threat to the UK and the rest of the world.

Many people were suspicious of the intelligence at the time, but we didn’t quite live in an era where we knew we could be lied to or misled. An official inquiry examined the evidence and found that one part of the intelligence described chemical weapons made up of glass spheres. No chemical weapons have ever been made like that, except in the well-known Nic Cage and Sean Connery thriller ‘The Rock’. The thought of inaccurate intelligence being used to justify a war is obscene, but 10 years later no-one seems to care. The media report on it, but everything goes on as before.

Financial Crisis

Then came the 2008 financial crash. Enabled by Clinton-era deregulation, bad maths and cocaine-fuelled greed, a chain reaction of bad debt crippled global banking organisations. The situation was so bad that countries had to bail out their banks with unthinkable sums of money.

Once again, people took to the streets in protest. In the US, the Occupy movement set up camp in cities across the country. Their slogan was “We are the 99%”, highlighting the rising inequality between the ultra-rich 1% who control large corporations and exert enormous influence on our political system.

In the UK alone, our bank bailout cost £500 billion, doubling the national debt and pushing it past the £1 trillion mark. And just like having too much personal debt, we are now struggling to pay off what we owe because of the size of the interest payments.

Internet activism

Following the financial crash, things got really interesting. Internet activists like Aaron Schwartz took on the establishment, trying to free up information and prevent profiteering from publicly funded research. Julian Assange took things even further and started to serve up classified communications between governments and the military. With the Arab Spring, countries used social media to organise protests and overthrow regimes.

It was a bumpy ride. Many felt people felt that Wikileaks was damaging and destabilising, but whichever way you feel about it, it can’t be denied that we now know more about what goes on behind closed doors, and have a clearer picture of the difference between what the public gets told and what is actually taking place. And underlying it all was an optimistic sense that the public might get some power back, and bring society back into a true democracy.

Aftermath

So where are we now? The people who brought about the Iraq war are no longer in power. Tony Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, but that is as far as it went. War has spread from Afghanistan to Syria, and caused the worst devastation yet.

The bank bailout is now old news. No-one wants to hear people complaining about it any more, despite the fact that it’s caused massive national debt. Economies are so fragile that Governments have cut taxes and interest rates down to the bone, hoping people will continue going to the shops. At the same time, the need for austerity means significant public spending cutbacks. Against a backdrop of increased need from an ageing population, the UK now has major NHS problems and a social care crisis.

Even worse, nearly a decade after the crisis, none of the banking safeguards have been restored. It could all happen again. There should have been global coordination t fix this, but apparently we don’t have a mechanism for that. Or, perhaps it wasn’t even seriously attempted. In the US under George W. Bush, the Treasury Department was controlled by investment bankers. And other countries who wanted to regulate were faced with a problem – if they did it and others didn’t follow, they would be disadvantaging their own financial institutions against the rest of the world.

Internet activism has been almost completely destroyed. Aaron Schwartz committed suicide while under heavy pressure during a prosecution brought for theft of information. Julian Assange is a wanted man and is in limbo in the Ecuadorian embassy. 4Chan are still around but are less focused and coordinated.

Analysis

While it would be an exaggeration to say that democracy has broken down in my country, there are major problems. The last 15 years has made it very clear that we are not being listened to, or told what the real agenda is behind events. Every now and then a speech is made that says “we are listening, and we will build a society that works for everyone”. Theresa May did this, and threw in a few ideas like putting workers on company boards. Then quietly it was all pushed under the carpet, deemed to be impractical or too heavy-handed. So we’re now faced with a population that isn’t prepared to tow the line any more. The relationship has broken down on both sides. Protest votes are now very common and set to continue.

Not only are governments out of touch with the public, they are out of touch with the changed world, having been overtaken and sidelined by global finance, military and technology corporations that are now extremely powerful, and play a major part in all of our lives. No government will admit it, but their powers are greatly diminished, sometimes simply by the rather obvious limitation of being an entity from a single country compared to corporations that span the globe.

People are punishing governments for failing to prevent their jobs from moving abroad or being automated, but governments are almost powerless to prevent it. We have embraced Capitalism in it’s purest form – neo-liberalism. Decades later, the absolute minimum of rules or regulations now stand in it’s way. Globalisation is here to stay.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll look into how the British political system can adapt to the modern world and suggest how to restore faith and re-engage with the public

Why Windows will move to a Linux kernel

For the past few months I’ve been thinking over an idea that initially sounded crazy, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. The idea is that Windows will become a GUI layer and set of services that run over the top of a Linux core. The NT kernel will be obsoleted.

Why would this ever happen? It’s fairly safe to say it wouldn’t be for technical reasons. Changing to a Linux kernel wouldn’t suddenly grant superpowers to Windows. It would be pretty much business as usual. You could argue the pro’s and con’s of the Linux kernel vs the NT kernel forever, but although they are architecturally different, the end results are broadly comparable. Although it has to be said, it will be a considerable upgrade for Windows to gain the improved security and file hierarchy of Unix systems.

No, this would be a business decision. Microsoft is facing the problem of a declining market share for desktop computing. The rise of mobile devices has eaten away at the size of the desktop/laptop computing market, and this looks set to continue. OEM hardware manufacturers have rapidly shifted focus towards mobile devices. Maintaining a full stack proprietary operating system like Windows is expensive. Especially with all the backwards compatibility they have to worry about. It would be much cheaper to just use open source foundations and build on top of that.

In this changing world, Microsoft has already made big changes to what Windows actually is as a product with Windows 10. It’s billed “the last version of Windows”, not because they’re stopping developing it but because it’s going to be a provided as a service – a continually updated product, with major version releases a thing of the past. Another interesting change with this new delivery model is the reduced testing effort, itself a cost cutting measure. Nowadays, Windows releases are signed off based on telemetry from beta testers in the Insider programme, rather than internal QA teams. Early builds of Windows 10 suffered as a result, but recently this has improved markedly.

So how would this idea work? Well, an engineering task like replacing the Windows kernel is certainly a massive job, but Microsoft are the best in the industry at this. They made 32-bit software run brilliantly on 64-bit Windows years before Apple did the same trick. They also pulled off some pretty crazy virtualisation tricks with the Xbox One, running two virtual machines on top of a hypervisor. So Microsoft could pull this off, of that I am certain. They would run the old NT kernel in a VM on top of Linux, and run existing software inside it. Slowly, software would be rewritten to run against the Linux kernel and custom Windows-specific layers above that.

The end result would be unification with the other two desktop operating systems – Linux and macOS. It would reduce maintenance costs for Windows significantly, and make life a lot easier for power users such as developers.

Perhaps the Bash Shell for Windows introduced with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update is the first step in this direction.

What I would do to fix Twitter

Twitter’s lack of progress in delivering new features and business models is astonishing. It’s not hard to see why there’s regular talk of bad financial results and a buyout. But at the same time, it’s an essential service for journalists and folks in other industries like tech and entertainment.

Here’s a quick list of what I would do with Twitter given the chance to try and turn it around:

– Features: get rid of the 140 character limit. Or rather, keep it as the headline, and add a body section that can contain a full post, or a longer summary with a link to the full article for sites that need onsite traffic. I must be the millionth person to ask for this, but even so, it’s still relevant. Why the hell has this not happened?

– Features: Powerful organising tools. Why on earth can’t I arrange the people and organisations I follow into some sensible structure, nested as deep as necessary? I’d like a celebrities folder, perhaps with Actors under there, and finally a link to video of Robert de Niro raging against Donald Trump. This structure would help deal with the firehose you get when you follow more than 5 people. I know you can create lists, but they are limited, and in the official client are hidden away in secret menus .

– Features: Unread marks per feed. When I open Robert de Niro’s feed, I only want to see new tweets, but with an toggle to view older ones. Now, holding unread marks on every tweet for every twitter user could be a bit of an engineering nightmare, so a simple “high water mark” of the last tweet that I read will be fine.

– Business: Paid accounts. An individual (perhaps even a celebrity) should get a free account, although some sort of paid premium account to attract celebs seems worth looking into, but businesses like media outlets who tweet every story they publish should be paying to be on Twitter.

– Business: Find a buyer in the media/publishing industry. Talk of Salesforce and Disney buying Twitter is insane – no wonder they walked away. Twitter is most valuable to media outlets and self promoters, and needs to be owned by someone in that industry.

Some people will look at this list and think the features sounds familiar, because it’s all borrowed from RSS – or at least high quality RSS clients like Reeder on iOS. And why not? RSS is excellent at dealing with a high volume of information. I am a big fan of Reeder and still use RSS heavily. Compared to Twitter, RSS is somewhat lacking in other departments, and is arguably dated. RSS is ripe to be replaced by Twitter if it could get it’s act together. And best of all, none of these features would make Twitter worse at what it’s used for now. They are complimentary.

When Google killed Google Reader back in 2013, Twitter should have been standing by to take over with a powerful platform to track news and status updates from people.

As far as I’m aware the features described above aren’t available in third party Twitter clients, but even if they are, they should be in the core product.

Come on Twitter, get it together. I’ve tried many times over the years to get into Twitter and use it regularly, but it just doesn’t work for me, and this keeps me on RSS. I can’t be the only one.