One Windows to rule them all? Be careful what you wish for

Microsoft's hopes for a master OS across all devices isn't about convenience -- it's about stealing your precious free time 24/7

Long before it landed with a thud, Windows 8 marked Microsoft's official relaunch of its one-operating-system-on-every-device strategy. This singular approach (spoiler alert!) worked out in the end for the hobbits, but Microsoft may face an even longer, more torturous path in its pursuit of precious market share against the almighty iPad.

After all, iPads are slick and easy, and Apple doesn't much care that iOS works only on its smartphone and its tablet and not on a Mac. What other move did Microsoft have besides waving its hands in the air and talking fast -- really fast -- about how great it would be to have Windows on everything?

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But it's not a new ploy. The same message went out when Windows NT stormed on the scene, touting "the ease of a desktop operating system on your server" (and largely killing Novell NetWare in the process). Then came the first Windows phones hawking a similar message of Windows compatibility across devices. It was even tentatively proffered when Microsoft made a weak play into the DVR market using Windows Media Center and Xbox, billing the combination as a "familiar" way to record television -- albeit five times more expensive than a standard DVR or TiVo.

How many Windows does it take to install a lightbulb?

Now it's back with an Apple-busting vengeance. "Multiple operating systems are dead! Long live the uber-OS: Windows 8(.1)." Except as Peter Bright from Ars Technica points out, it's not one OS. It's three. Even there, Peter is wrong -- it's actually four.

He forgot about Windows Embedded 8 (I guess 8.1 now?), the sneaky OS that creeps into devices where you don't expect to see a Microsoft logo -- cash registers or those clunky things into which FedEx staffers punch numbers after they hand you your package (soon to join the endangered species list in light of Amazon's plan for flying squidbots). While Windows Embedded shares some of the kernel innards with the other three, it's different, both in how it's deployed and managed.

Apparently four operating systems are too much, not just for Peter or Mary Jo Foley's rumor factory, but also for Microsoft, which wants to tie Windows together across any kind of hardware. That's all well and good for the Ernst Stavro Blofeld types in Redmond, but my question is from the user perspective -- that is, the office drone looking to go home at the end of the day. Do I really want a single OS that covers all my devices? Maybe I've been a snarky recluse too long, but my gut says "God, no!"

The vast majority of OS and software innovations coming out of Microsoft have been geared toward productivity. This company of roughly 100,000 works day and night on new ways to keep the rest of us working day and night -- with the occasional Xbox binge for variety. Microsoft certainly isn't alone in that regard. Add it up, and undoubtedly millions of brilliant minds across thousands of technology companies are constantly trying to do the same. The result has been a culture shift that has quietly but inexorably leeched away our free time. Everywhere you turn, there's some beeping bell or blinking icon reminding you of work yet undone.

From toy to tool: The iPad takes a turn

That's why the Apple iPad was such a success. At the start, the iPad had nothing to do with work. Other than an email client, it didn't do work and wasn't meant to. It's a toy, and I don't say that in a dismissive way. It was a purely personal device for playing Angry Birds, light Web surfing (as long it didn't involve Flash video), or annoying your friends with vacation photos.

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