One of the most anticipated technology events in 2012 will be the commercial release of Microsoft‘s Windows 8. Microsoft not only wants to demonstrate their commitment to the Windows PC platform but also show that they can provide deep levels of innovation in new platforms like tablets and convertibles. Microsoft must also demonstrate to many that they can compete on many fronts with Apple, Google and Amazon on platforms, apps and services. Microsoft turned over every stone possible in their planning stage, eventually deciding to make a very huge hardware change in supporting the ARM processor architecture, a major departure from PC Windows platform exclusivity with X86, namely Intel and AMD. With risk comes return, but only if one mitigates the risk. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that Windows 8 on ARM architecture, aka WoA, will face many hurdles which will need to be quickly overcome to successfully position it. If not, it will be very challenging for Microsoft, ARM, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, their customers and their retail channels.
BUILD Conference and the Developer Preview
Let me start by giving a little background starting at Microsoft’s BUILD conference. I personally attended Microsoft’s developer conference, called BUILD, last September. It was one of the most informative and exciting Microsoft events I have ever attended, and I have been to many in the last 20 years as an OEM customer and as a hardware partner. Microsoft communicated with confidence and clarity a level of detail I had never seen before, which really gave me confidence that Windows 8 was headed in the right direction. I have loaded Windows 8 Developer Preview on almost 10 X86 PCs and so far I am very impressed with build quality, speed, and compatibility. I have heard the same from many respected name in the industry. There was no Developer Preview for ARM SOCs that attendees could take home with them, and there are good reasons for it.
ARM Incompatibility with Legacy X86 Applications
By definition, programs that have already been developed for Intel and AMD X86 PC platforms will not run on any ARM SOC (System on a Chip) from Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, or any other ARM licensee. The reverse is true too; apps written for ARM will not run natively on X86 processors. Software programmers are ingenious at emulation, but nothing has been announced about ARM emulating X86 nor do I think we will see it anytime soon. This is primarily because emulation eats up significant hardware resources which no current ARM-based SOC has to spare. Intel, on the other hand, isemulating ARM on their X86 Medfield platform as they showed at CES 2012. Obviously Intel believes they do have sufficient resources to do this.
So what does this mean? That Office 2010 someone bought for $120-350 or that Sims 3 Pets game you bought for $29in September of 2012 will not run on a ARM-based Windows 8 tablet or notebook. This doesn’t mean that WoA platforms won’t have applications; they will. Microsoft has gone great pains to develop a new application development environment where developers can write new Metro Windows 8-based applications using a new and slick Visual Studio developer app. That doesn’t change the fact that none of the legacy apps will work.
I’ve heard the argument that none of this matters because consumers only care about new apps and that they don’t care about old apps. Examples like the iPad and Kindle Fire are given. The big difference is Windows, and what it infers. Windows stands for compatibility and being able to use legacy peripherals and apps. While I can probably count the number of $350 iOS apps on my toes, many exist for Windows. Some won’t care, but for the buyers who are OK throwing out their old software library and starting over will buy a Windows 8 device with an Intel or AMD X86 processor.
Lack of Windows on ARM Desktop Means Lack of “Rich” Applications
Windows 8 for X86 has two operating modes, “Metro” and “Desktop” mode. Metro is the tiled based interface designedto work best with direct touch, and for that matter voice and Kinect-like air-gestures. Desktop mode is exactly that, just like the Windows 7 desktop. Microsoft has confirmed that Windows on X86 will ship with both modes, Metro and Desktop. Microsoft initially showed WoA systems at BUILD, then a few months later, you stopped seeing any WoA systems with the Desktop tile. I did not see the Desktop tile on systems at Nvidia, Texas Instruments, or Qualcomm venues at CES. At Nvidia’s Tegra 3 event, Microsoft was on stage demoing some awesome WoA systems and it did not have a Desktop tile either. With this, I think it’s safe to assume that neither Microsoft nor its OEMs will be shipping WoA systems with Desktop functionality. This is probably a good move if I place myself in Microsoft’s shoes. Their biggest area of pain right now is against Apple and Windows 8 Metro plus ARM will help them attack Apple and they don’t necessarily need Desktop to do that. With Intel’s Medfield and the 22nm Tri-gate Silvermont follow on, Microsoft can enable a super low power Metro and Desktop platform. Net-net, Microsoft doesn’t need ARM to support Desktop because they now have Intel and Medfield.
The biggest implication of this is that WoA systems will not be able to develop what Microsoft calls “rich” apps, or those with “chrome” and a lot of functionality. Microsoft’s Jensen Harrisdid a fantastic job at the BUILD event describing the design principals of Metro and what it means to today’s “rich” apps. The “rich” apps are the ones that work best with a keyboard and mouse with a dense layout of tools and information and have precise layouts of multiple Windows. Jensen used examples like today’s Photoshop and software development tools as examples of “rich” apps. I think today’s Office 2010 fits into that “rich” category as well. Look at all that chrome and dense layout! Metro apps are about the content, about being fast and fluid, with lots of white space and keep out zones and beauty, not about 50 different functions on one page. So net-net, WoA developers will be able to build Metro apps, but they will not have an option to develop “rich” Desktop apps.
I’ve heard the argument that says, “rich” apps are yesterday and the apps of the future are like Metro. To some extent they are right, but if you were around when the market moved from DOS to Windows, you know if took years to make the switch. Many enterprises still use DOS-based apps in a shell today. Just like many consumers fought moving from DOS to Windows, many will fight moving from Desktop to Metro. There are differences between then and now. The biggest difference is that on WoA systems, users won’t be given both, they will only be given one choice, Metro. Secondly, there isn’t a good way to make a dense layout work on Metro. Some will be OK with it, some won’t. Those who won’t will buy systems based on Intel or AMD.