Keynote comments point to Windows on Xbox

Comments made by Microsoft's Andy Lees at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference on Tuesday have ignited rumours that the next-generation Xbox console could run Windows 8 as its operating system.

Recently, rumours have been spreading - and not without evidence - that Microsoft is planning to introduce the ability to play Xbox 360 games on Windows 8 PCs. During his keynote speech, Lees alluded to that but also suggested that the technology transfer will be in both directions.

"One of the key important things here, though, is the change that's yet to happen but it's about to happen," Lees told attendees at the event, "and that is the bringing together of these devices into a unified ecosystem. We won't have an ecosystem for PCs, and for phones, one for tablets - they'll all come together."

So far, that's in keeping with Microsoft's previous announcements: Windows 8 will run on x86 and ARM across desktop, laptop, and portable devices. Windows Phone, the company's smartphone-oriented platform, will borrow key technology from the desktop while the desktop borrows technology from the smartphone.

"If you looked at the update that we're providing to Windows Phone this year, we include a new browser," explained Lees. "It's Internet Explorer 9. It's the same technology that we have on the PC. It's not similar, it's the same. So, we can take the advantages that we provide on the PC and immediately leapfrog and provide those across different types of devices."

Where the keynote started to drift from Microsoft's currently published roadmap was when Lees got on to the subject of TVs and the company's Xbox gaming platform. "We are aiming to provide coherence and consistency across the PC, the phone, and the TV - particularly with Xbox," Lees claimed. "That's through providing new types of scenarios - things like the way in which you make the user experience more common, as you saw yesterday in the demontration of the user experience you have on Windows 8, on Windows Phone, and also on Xbox - but also sharing key pieces of technology."

While Lees didn't elaborate on precisely what technology would be shared, some believe that he was hinting at a future Xbox console which will run a fully-featured version of the Windows operating system.

It wouldn't be the first such console to do so: back in 1998 Sega launched the Dreamcast, which was based on a customised version of Microsoft's embedded offering Windows CE. Microsoft's first foray into the console gaming world, the Xbox, wasn't: while it shared some of the same technologies and APIs as Windows 2000, it was described by a member of the engineering team as "a custom operating system built from the ground up."

Microsoft's move to the PowerPC architecture with the Xbox 360 made an already custom operating system even more unique: code written for the x86 architecture used in PCs won't run on a PowerPC chip, and vice-versa.

Microsoft has already confirmed that it will be launching Windows 8 in x86 and ARM flavours, but it has been silent on a PowerPC build. If the belief that Lees is referring to a Windows-powered games console proves true, it points to a fundamental shift in architecture for the next-generation Xbox: either back to x86, as with the original Xbox, or to ARM.

Despite the rather vague comments made by Lees, one thing seems clear: Microsoft is pushing to make Windows the standard across all devices, from smart TVs to tablets. That push to reinvent the operating system most commonly associated with desktops and laptops may bring an interesting move: a ditching of the Windows name. According to anonymous sources speaking to This Is My Next, Microsoft is looking to remove the brand in a total reinvention of the platform.

For those jaded by the apparently small improvements each revision of Windows brings, the next few years could prove very interesting indeed.

Andy Lees' full keynote speech is provided in the video below, for context.