Windows 10 Mobile: Making an Operating System the hard way!

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I can imagine the meetings at Microsoft around eighteen months ago when the concept of the Insiders Programme was first suggested for Windows 10. We'd become used to being able to preview desktop OS a month or two before public availability, a beta or two if you will, but the Insiders initiative was something totally different - involving Joe Public and a hundred thousand others in (potentially) dozens of unfinished, often badly broken builds - both on the PC and then on phones. What could go wrong?(!) Talk about making an Operating System the hard way...

Sausage making!

In episode 4 of The West Wing (Rafe's  - and my - favourite TV show), Leo remarks: "There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em - laws and sausages." To which I'd add 'Operating Systems'. Continuing the cultural references, Pascal Zachary's 'Showstopper' chronicles the building of Windows NT (which, ultimately evolved into the OS that we're using today) in great detail, with colourful characters and even more colourful disasters and broken code along the way.

As an ex-programmer myself, I know only too well that if you recruit 'beta testers' for an application (let alone an OS) then they'd better be reliable. People who aren't thrown when something goes wrong, people who'll remember what they did to get things to break, and people you can trust not to pass on either the code or their experiences with each build to others outside of the tightly controlled testing group.

The concept of giving patently unfinished versions of a complete operating system, with its tens of millions of lines of code, its 60 or so core applications, its thousands of system calls and functions, all with potentially showstopping bugs, to normal users would normally be abhorrent. Not least because a large number of the people grabbing the builds are going to be using the OS on their main device, with no regard for the consequences. Go on, admit it, how many of you have lived with the Windows 10 Mobile Insiders Preview on your main phone for most of the last eight months?

Near me is Reading railway station, recently completing a massive rebuild, almost every structure was torn down and replaced, whole chunks of land were completely reassigned, the building work has taken three years, yet the station was only closed to trains for a few days one Christmas. I cannot conceive how this was project managed, to keep enough of the platforms and tracks running at all times for completely normal train services, for so long, in the middle of the bulldozers, cranes and diggers. It remains something of an engineering miracle that it all worked out:

Reading Station

And Windows 10 Mobile hasn't been much different. For the best part of a year, many people have been using it - just as on the desktop before it - on their primary smartphone, sometimes their only smartphone. Working round bugs and issues, seeing 'how the sausage was made', yet persevering and, on the whole, Microsoft and the OS coming through. Admittedly, things are running a month or two behind the original schedule, partly because of the push to get the desktop version out on time in 2015, meaning that there wasn't much attention paid to mobile and the ARM-compiled version for much of the year.

But it's still an impressive achievement. If I'd be running the Windows 10 show, I'd have been scared witless at all the things which could have gone wrong - especially as phones are such personal devices. For example, if a PC crashes or misbehaves, we sigh, crack a joke and reboot, heading off to make a coffee perhaps in the meantime. If a phone misbehaves, if a family call or message is missed, if that email from the boss doesn't arrive, then you're in the doghouse and your life just got a whole lot worse. A phone, a smartphone has to be reliable.

So yes, if I'd been in charge, I'd have gone down the traditional route of internal testing within Microsoft and then a beta or two nearer to release time. Far less scope for things to go pear shaped, certainly for large numbers of users, all of whom are likely to tell others, and so on...

But then I'm not this brave. And I'm not really sure whether I mean 'brave' as in Yes Minister. Or 'brave' as in Braveheart!

Has this brave Insiders Programme succeeded then? On balance yes. Although there will have been some delays internally in Microsoft while manpower was spent managing the programme and distributing and fixing builds, the feedback through the Windows Feedback utility has helped take all kinds of rough edges of the user interface in the rocky transition from Windows 10 desktop to phone. And for every wacky or silly suggestion there was at least one great comment that led to something in the final OS, application or UI.

Anyway, now we all know how operating systems are made - we've lived through it, build by build, application update by application update. And, thanks to 'Windows 10 as a service' and continuing updates, the journey won't be over anytime soon.

PS. If all this real time saga isn't dramatic enough for you, go seek out the book Showstopper, pictured below. It's a classic. And will make you appreciate the current Microsoft effort all the more!