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April 18, 2012

The nature and potential of Windows 8 for ARM devices

Well, Microsoft announced in its Windows Blog (see here) that there will be three versions of the upcoming Windows 8. For PCs and tablets based on x86 processors, there will be plain Windows 8 and and the more business-oriented Windows 8 Pro that adds features for encryption, virtualization, PC management and domain connectivity. Windows Media Center will be available as a "media pack" add-on to Windows 8 Pro. A third version, Windows RT, will be available pre-installed on ARM-based PCs and tablets. Windows RT will include touch-optimized desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

That, mercifully, cuts down the available number of Windows 8 versions from five in Windows 7 (Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate) to just three, if you don't count additional embedded and compact varieties.

While Microsoft's April 16 announcement on the versions was interesting, what's even more interesting is a long entry in Microsoft's MSDN blog back on February 9. It was called "Building Windows for the ARM processor architecture" (see here) and provided an almost 9,000 word fairly technical discussion of the ARM version of Windows 8. That one shed some light on how Microsoft intends to implement and position the next version of Windows, and make sure Windows won't be irrelevant in what many now term the "post PC" era.

As you may recall, Microsoft's initial Windows 8 announcements were a bit odd. Microsoft called Windows 8 "touch first" and made it sound as if Windows 8 were a totally multi-touch centric OS. While that certainly sounded good in a world awash in iPads, it seemed exceedingly unlikely that all those hundreds of millions of office workers would suddenly switch to touch devices. One could really only come to one conclusion: Windows 8 would most likely work pretty much like Windows 7 and Windows XP before it, but hopefully also somehow incorporate touch into the vast Microsoft software empire.

The MSDN blog goes a long way in explaining much of what we can expect. It's difficult to condense the very long post into some of the important basics, but it goes something like this:

Windows on ARM, which was originally called Windows WOA but was then renamed to Windows RT in the April announcement, should feel as much as standard Windows 8 as possible. To that extent, while the ARM version cannot run legacy Windows software, there will be a Windows desktop with the familiar look and feel, and also a lot of the familiar Windows desktop functionality.

Microsoft also emphasized that Windows RT will have a "very high degree of commonality and very significant shared code with Windows 8." So why can't it run legacy Windows software? Because, Microsoft says, "if we enabled the broad porting of existing code we would fail to deliver on our commitment to longer battery life, predictable performance, and especially a reliable experience over time."

That, however, doesn't mean there won't be Microsoft Office on the ARM version of Windows. In fact, every Windows ARM device will come with desktop versions of the new "Office 15," including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Will the ARM version of Office be different? Microsoft says that they "have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility." What that means remains to be seen. After all, the Windows CE/Mobile "Pocket" versions of the Office apps were also called Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, but with just offering a small fraction of the desktop versions' functionality.

From a cost point of view, x86 Microsoft Office runs between US$119 (Home and Student) to US$349 (Office Professional). Considering that Windows RT devices will likely have to be very price-competitive with iPads and Android tablets, including Office will put an additional cost burden on Windows ARM devices.

Now let's take a broader look at Windows RT and how it'll differ from standard x86 Windows 8. First of all, you won't be able to just buy the Windows RT OS. It only comes already installed on hardware. That's really no different from Android, and the reason is that the operating system on ARM-based devices is much more intertwined and optimized for particular hardware than x86 Windows that pretty much ran on any x86 device.

Microsoft also stated that it has been working with just three ARM hardware platform vendors, those being NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. There are, of course, many more companies that make ARM-based chips and it remains to be seen whether other ARM vendors will remain excluded or if they, too, will have access to Windows RT. As is, while Windows has always predominately been x86, Microsoft occasionally also supported other processor platforms. For example, early Windows CE was considered a multi-processor architecture. Back in 1997, Windows CE supported Hitachi's SuperH architecture, two MIPS variants, x86, the PowerPC, and also ARM.

Another difference between the x86 and the ARM version of Windows 8 is that "WOA PCs will be serviced only through Windows or Microsoft Update, and consumer apps will only come from the Windows Store." So while x86 versions of Windows 8 application software will likely be available both through a Windows Store or directly from developers, Windows 8 ARM devices will follow the Apple app store model. That, of course, has significant control and security implications.

A further difference between Windows 8 x86 and ARM devices will be that while conventional x86 hardware likely continues to have the traditional standby and hibernation modes, ARM-based Windows devices will work more like smartphones and tablets that are essentially always on.

Now for the big question: How does Microsoft intend to bring Windows to such wildly different devices as a desktop PC and a tablet without falling into the same traps it fell into with earlier tablet efforts that were never more than compromises? In Microsoft's vision, by adding the WinRT, a Windows API that handles Metro style apps. From what I can tell, if a Metro application (i.e. one that only exists in the tile-based Metro interface) completely adheres to the WinRT API, then it can run both on ARM devices and also on x86 devices under their Metro interface.

What does that mean for existing software that developers also want to make available on ARM devices? There are two options. First, developers could build a new metro style front end that then communicates with external data sources and communicates through a web services API. Second, they could reuse whatever runtime code they can within a Metro environment. Either way, the old Windows leverage argument ("staff and developers already know Windows, so we should stay with Windows") won't be as strong as the WinRT API and Metro interface are new. How that will affect business customers who simply wish to stay with Windows instead of using iPads or Android tablets is anyone's guess.

I must admit that having gone though Windows for Pen Computing (1992), the Windows Pen Services (1996), and then the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (2001), I am a bit skeptical of Microsoft's approach to Windows RT. It still feels a lot like hedging bets, cobbling yet another veneer on top of standard Windows, and claiming integration where none exists.

In fairness, the iPad has the same issues with Mac OS. The iPad is fundamentally different from a desktop iMac or even MacBook, and I am witnessing Apple's attempts at bringing the Mac OS closer to iOS with a degree of trepidation. But the situation is different, too. Microsoft's home base is the desktop and it now wants (and needs) to find ways to extend its leadership into tablets and devices, whereas Apple found a new and wildly successful paradigm that flies on its own and only loosely interfaces with the desktop (where most iPad users have Windows machines).

Bottom line? For now, while Windows 8 will undoubtedly do very well for Microsoft on the desktop and on laptops, it remains far from a certain slam dunk on the tablet and devices side. As I am writing this, Microsoft, AT&T and Nokia are on an all-out campaign to boost Windows Phone with the Nokia Lumina 900, but considering the massive head start the iPhone and Android have, nice though it is, Windows Phone remains a long shot. Windows RT will likely encounter a similar situation.

One possible outcome may be that Windows RT will lead to a resurgence of the netbook syndrome. Netbooks sold on price alone, though they were never very good. Low-cost Metro devices might pick up where earlier gen netbooks left off, with multi-touch and lots of post PC features, but still nominally being Microsoft and having Office.

Posted by conradb212 at April 18, 2012 05:06 PM

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