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The long road to a more unified Windows gaming platform

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For Microsoft, creating a unified code base for its game console, desktop computing and mobile activities has been a long time coming.

But if Don Box, one of the company's top engineers, is to be believed, Microsoft does not intend to half-ass this opportunity.

In a tech-heavy presentation to developers at GDC today, Box talked about the "nightmare" of dealing with separate systems for its different areas of activity. As recently as 2011, the firm was working with Windows NT-based PCs, Windows CE-based mobiles and, in Xbox 360, an OS based largely on Windows 2000.

"These are all wildly different code bases," he said. "If you wanted your code to work on all three, it was horrific. We hit a wall. We said, 'we have got to fix this.'"

In 2012, the company released Windows 8 for desktops and Windows 8 Mobile, as well as a Windows 8 derivative for Xbox One's operating system. But they were still not entirely in sync. Microsoft's daunting corporate hierarchies and infrastructures had different people working on different schedules with different priorities.

It was horrific. We hit a wall.

With the release of Windows 10 looming, company leaders decided that "we kinda had to do this," meaning, bring the same operating system across all manner of devices. The result, as outlined by Phil Spencer back in January and earlier today at GDC, is a single operating system across all devices, including newer platforms like HoloLens.

What this means for developers is a simple app platform that allows developers to write a single app for all devices, which is then modified for the needs of particular platforms. For example, an app for a PC might display significant differences from the same app for Xbox One or a Windows phone, but it will be based on the same code.

Box said that each app will have the same identity across its platform manifestations. Behind the scenes, it will go through a standardized deployment and update sequence. It will be sold on a unified store and it will be built using a standardized suite of tools.

This is a long way from the mess that Microsoft has been working with for years, as it has sought to grapple with a world moving towards multiple devices.

"You have no idea what it took for us to get Silverlight working on Xbox 360," quipped Box, adding that the unified system is now "a business requirement" for a company like Microsoft.