Windows 7 to get ‘instant on’ mode?

The significance of the number in Windows 7’s name could take on a whole new meaning.

What if you could stab the power button on your desktop or laptop and within seven seconds be able to browse the Web use online video chat make VoIP calls listen to music or watch a movie? How about being able to check your calendar look up a phone number in your address book or even run an Office app?

Those are some of the options Microsoft is putting on the table for a new ‘Instant On’ mode. Detailed in an online survey and revealed by Engadget Instant On is Microsoft’s response to the growing number of pre-boot environments being adopted by PC builders – environments which are almost always based on Linux.

While these began as ways to play music and DVDs the latest iterations extend to online activities including email Skype and gaming. Among the more advanced pre-Windows environments are Splashtop which Asus has customised as Express Gate and is now loading onto all its motherboards and Dell’s Latitude ON which appears in the company’s new Latitude business notebooks and even includes synchronisation with an Exchange server.

“Instant On takes your computer from being completely powered down to being usable for a few specific activities in a very short amount of time” cites the survey. “The Instant On experience is different from ‘Full Windows’ because it limits what activities you can do and what applications you have access to.”

“In the ‘Instant On’ scenario your computer would be usable in eight seconds” the survey explains but continues that “you would not have full access to Windows or all of your applications.”.

However ‘Access to Office applications’ is listed among the possible Instant On activities that survey respondents are asked to rate. Others include email “video chat through an instant messaging application” and “Voice over IP through an application like Skype”.

By baking Instant On mode into the Windows OS itself Microsoft would make it harder for PC makers to justify the additional cost and resource of implementing a stand-alone fast-boot system.

Most fast-boot systems currently work by loading the pre-boot OS from a dedicated slab of flash memory fitted to the motherboard. Dell’s Latitude ON involves an entire system-on-chip (SoC) module containing its own low-power ARM processor and additional flash memory for storage so that it runs independently of the notebook’s hard drive or main processor. This dramatically extends a laptop’s battery life when the instant-on OS is used for tasks normally handled by Windows.

Fortunately Microsoft already has a head start for Instant On in the shape of Windows PE. This is a pared-down version of Windows built around the same kernel and originally used during Windows installation – hence its formal name of Windows Preinstallation Environment.

However WinPE can also be used to load a useful pre-Windows operating environment – Dell chose WinPE as the foundation for its fast-boot MediaDirect system which already includes the ability to view PowerPoint presentations and Outlook contacts. One of the advantages of WinPE is that because it has full access to and compatibility with Windows OS drivers it can be configured to use any part of the host PC and connected hardware.

Microsoft would be required to set a new hardware platform for Instant On systems bake the subset which could position the Instant On environment in a hard disk partition for low cost or a standalone flash memory chip for speedier access and in the case on notebooks extended battery life.