Xbox One Has Not One, but Three Operating Systems

Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg
Gamers play the "Battlefield 4" video game on Microsoft Corp. Xbox One consoles during the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London.

When gamers around the world boot up their Xbox One consoles to play "Call of Duty: Ghosts" for the first time today, the system will do a careful hand-off behind the scenes that involves three separate operating systems developed by Microsoft.

This is a new one for the software giant, which debuted its next-generation console today in 13 countries. The original Xbox and Xbox 360 did not run Windows, Microsoft's flagship computing platform. Previous iterations of the system had a single custom operating system focused primarily on playing games.

The Xbox One has a game-centric operating system, too. But it also has a stripped-down version of Windows 8, designed to be more flexible and optimized for non-gaming applications like Skype and Hulu. The third operating system is a layer that connects the two, enabling fast switching between games and apps.

It's not the first video-game system that has a version of Windows loaded onto it — Sega's Dreamcast, which launched in 1999, ran Windows CE. But it's the first Xbox. The 360 wasn't really capable of running Windows, according to Boyd Multerer, director of development for Xbox.

The triple-platform play is part of a plan to leverage technologies and products from various divisions of Microsoft to get a leg up on Sony and Nintendo. Microsoft views the Xbox One as a test case for its new One Microsoft strategy, which is outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer's scheme to make the company work better together. Check out my story in the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek for more on that.

"There's been this tremendous mindset change," Multerer said. "We're getting more attention and more help and more love from the Windows team than we've ever seen before."

Because game hardware is only updated every five to 10 years, consoles need to be able to adapt to changing usage habits and features that might not exist when they came out. When the Xbox 360 was released eight years ago, nobody could have foreseen Kinect or the advent of apps.

To future-proof the Xbox One, Microsoft turned to a technology typically used in data centers. Virtualization software — a program called hypervisor, specifically — allows the hardware to run different operating systems without one impacting the other. The structure will enable Microsoft to add to and experiment with the apps side of the machine without wrecking existing games, Multerer said. On the Xbox 360, apps can only run one at a time, and the first batch of programs had to be custom-built by Microsoft because the tools were so complicated.

Microsoft brought in some of its big guns to work on the third operating system and programming tools that tie the whole thing together. For example, Dave Cutler, the father of Windows NT, was shifted to Xbox to build the hypervisor.

Multerer himself is a key part of gaming history at Microsoft as the man who started the Xbox Live online service. J Allard, one of the earliest Xbox executives, brought him to the company's nascent gaming division in 2000. In his pitch, Allard pointed to the back of the original Xbox hardware and said, "We've decided to put an Ethernet port in. Go figure out what it talks to," recalled Multerer.

Marc Whitten, the chief product officer at Xbox, said the idea of Windows in an Xbox might elicit a few groans. Microsoft hasn't always done a good job of combining products elegantly, he said.

"Collaboration, when done well, is a magical thing," he says. "When it's done poorly, it can feel a little pasted together."

Thankfully, Microsoft has taken extra steps to minimize the chance of deathmatches getting interrupted by blue screens of death.

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