Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

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Windows 8 on ARM: What it Will Look Like

Last week was big for Windows 8 news (given the relative secrecy around the whole project).  At the beginning of the week we learned that the Consumer Preview (a.k.a. the "Beta") of Windows 8 will be released at the very end of the month in concert with the Mobile World Congress (MWC) conference in Barcelona. Then on Thursday, Windows and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky uploaded an 8,600-plus-word post to the Building Windows 8 blog detailing Microsoft's plans for Windows on ARM (i.e. Windows for devices using the same low-power processor designs used in virtually all smartphone and tablet devices today). It's probably worthwhile to deconstruct these two developments a little, as I think they are two sides of the same coin.

The first thing to note is that Microsoft launched the Beta of Windows 7 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2009. But for Windows 8 in 2012, Redmond decided to wait until February and do it at the MWC instead. Part of the reasoning behind this may have been that the Beta wasn't ready in early January, but I think another part -- or maybe all -- of the reasoning is based on Microsoft's understanding that PCs are going mobile.  Perhaps Microsoft doesn't view where we are as the "post-PC" era, but that really comes down to semantics, as the tablet-style devices that Microsoft continues to call PCs seem to be the "hero devices" for the new version of the Windows operating system.  Hence the showcase at MWC for Windows 8 and this week's white-paper-as-blog-post on Windows on ARM (WOA).

The WOA news was pretty big, so let's just cut to the chase: WOA will feature a Windows desktop mode, but the only things you'll be able to run there are applets that are part of Windows itself, Internet Explorer 10 (which, arguably, is one of those applets anyway) and the forthcoming version of Office, codenamed "Office 15." There won't be other apps there, and browser plug-ins, as Sinofsky revealed in his interview with All Things D's Ina Fried, will not offer a workaround...because even the desktop version of IE 10 in WOA won't support them. That means no Flash on WOA, and no Silverlight on WOA either -- at all.

Is this nuts? Honestly, I don't think so. If you read Sinofsky's post, you'll see there was some pretty methodical thinking behind this, and most of it has to do with power efficiency and reliability of the WOA experience. Windows Desktop applications are built with an assumption of always-on AC power, or the laptop-style DC power that emulates it. Desktops and laptops aren't like phones. They're not devices; they're machines.  People use them as machines, people expect them to work like machines, and developers build machine-oriented apps for them. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it's required.

But tablets are devices. Interactions with them are fast and discrete, like a stand-up meeting rather than an all-morning whiteboard session. Get in, get out, and go forth. That's why WOA will be installed on the device when you buy it. That's why all updates will come from the Windows Update system, and why all apps will come from the Windows Store. That makes sense. WOA products are different products, and will face different expectations. In 2002, Bill Gates wrote one of his watershed all-personnel memos, titled Trustworthy Computing. While much of the memo was focused on security, Gates had this to say toward the conclusion of the memo: "Systems will have to become self-managing and inherently resilient. We need to prepare now for the kind of software that will make this happen, and we must be the kind of company that people can rely on to deliver it." Ten years later, Windows 8, and especially Windows on ARM, seem poised to fulfill this goal.

So why call WOA devices PCs? While part of this is due to the politics and semantics alluded to above, I think another part of it has to do with productivity. Microsoft sees PCs, in addition to being leisure devices, as things (machines or devices) with which people get work done. And that's why, I believe, Microsoft is allowing one non-OS application suite to run in the Desktop mode: Office. Take a look at this video with Scott Seiber, featured in Sinofsky's post -- particularly at the 3:46 time marker -- and you'll see what I mean.  I haven't used Office 15, so I don't know how productive it really is with touch, but it looks good. I have used iWork on the iPad, and I know that, for me at least, it's not productive at all.

So here's where we are with Windows 8: The Intel platform will offer a full Desktop mouse-and-keyboard experience and will feature a split personality, allowing Metro-style apps to run as well, sometimes with touch. Windows on ARM devices will offer the Metro-style touch-first experience first and foremost, and still provide the productivity of Office without forcing users to switch to a machine, like the iPad does today. Intel PCs for Windows 8 will be machines with device capabilities. Windows on ARM "PCs" will be devices with "in-a-pinch" Windows desktop capabilities, including the platform's crucial desktop productivity apps, optimized for touch and power conservation.

I don't know if Microsoft can beat Apple with this approach, but it looks like the only logical way forward. A logical approach plus a lot of perseverance can be a winning strategy. It has been with a great number of Microsoft's other products.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 02/13/2012 at 1:16 PM

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