Microsoft’s Bold OS Approach

by Jeff Cork on May 21, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Do you consume your entertainment while juggling multiple screens? Microsoft knows the era of multitasking is here, and it’s designed the Xbox One to fully support that mindset.

“What you realize when you’re thinking about the next-generation console is that you have to wrap your head around the next-generation gamer,” says Boyd Multerer, Xbox director of development. “And the next-generation gamer is not necessarily the gamer I was when I was first getting into gaming. There are real differences and real changes that have happened.... It’s been eight years since we started building the last one.”

In the intervening years since the Xbox 360 was released, mobile devices have shifted from being a novelty for the hardest of the hardcore nerds to something that most people can’t imagine living without. We live in the age of apps and services, where the ability to tweak and choose what information you get and how it’s delivered is taken for granted. People are increasingly becoming adept at multitasking. And their attention spans are shorter.

Microsoft sees the Xbox One as a games-and-entertainment device, a hub where users gather to consume their favorite movies, TV shows and – most importantly for a lot of us – games. According to Multerer, the old way of dealing with console architecture is simply outmoded. The solution that Microsoft came up with was to have three operating systems running simultaneously.

“There are three virtual machines running on this box,” Multerer says. “There’s a host, there’s a shared one, and there’s an exclusive one. The host’s job is to set the other two up and manage resources between them. The shared side effectively is created and boots when you turn the box on, and it stays alive until you turn the box off. It kind of makes sense when you think about PCs, but this is really new for consoles.”

Multerer says that under the current Xbox 360 architecture, getting games and apps to run requires a complex juggling act. When you load a game, you’re essentially rebooting the entire system. “It’s kind of exaggerated to the point where in a lot of games when you’re switching between levels, every time you switch levels the box reboots into the next level,” he says. The new shared side is designed with persistence in mind.

“[T]his is the place where I can run code and the game developer can run code that is alive the entire time the box is on,” he says. “Games can come and go, but now I can have apps, which can be written by the game developer, can be written by us, or written by third parties, that are running the entire time and watching what’s happening on the box. 

“The exclusive side gets the majority of the resources of the box. This is for games. This is built just like a traditional console would be built. With these apps or games, they bring their own operating system, this thing gets torn down and rebuilt every time you change a game, so the game has its environment, it’s exactly what the environment expects, it’s got exactly the amount of RAM it expects, it is very predictable. The key word is predictability. It knows exactly what it’s going to get so they can optimize the resources and they can optimize the graphics and the textures and the models and the audio to fit this box and get the best possible looking game that they possibly can. This operating system is very thin, it just does what the games need because anything more we put in there would take away from the resources we could give those games. It pretty much sits right on top of the hardware. The host is here to guarantee the boundaries between these guys.”

Since apps get their own dedicated resources, and games get their own, Microsoft says the transition between the two is seamless – and can actually overlap. Players can send and take Skype calls from anywhere, for instance, without having to quit out or go through a laborious launching sequence. 


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