After tons of secrecy around the topic, Microsoft has decided it was finally time to let us in on the Windows 8 and ARM architecture situation. Early speculations lead us to believe the “desktop mode” would not be present on ARM versions of Windows 8, while other led us to believe the exact opposite. Well, speculate no more, Microsoft’s own Steven Sinofsky laid it all out in a rather detailed blog post.
For the less technical or consumerist among you, let me offer a better understanding of what ARM architecture really is. Traditionally speaking, you are probably already familiar with the x86/x64 chipsets, these are found in your current PC; both desktop and laptop. ARM offers a much more scaled down version of these, optimized for mobility. For example, your smartphone, iPad or Android devices are all running ARM like goodness. I want you to keep this very simple comparison in mind; it will serve you well in understanding why WOA is such a big deal.
Windows 8 as you may or may not know will be shipped with a revolutionary UI interface dubbed “Metro.” If it sounds familiar, it’s because Metro UI made its first appearance in Microsoft’s latest mobile OS, Windows Phone. Pundits would be quick to remind me, the true concept of metro was hatched from Windows Media Center and the good old Xbox 360, but for simplicity sake, we won’t take it that far. If you’re still in the dark as to what this Metro thing is all about, check out the video below.
Up until now, Microsoft has been showing off the Metro UI and Windows 8 goodness on a form factor called “Slate PC.” So, what is a slate PC? Think of a laptop without a keyboard, that includes a touch screen. Awesome isn’t it! Not all the way awesome, here’s why. Slate PCs are still very much PCs, which mean the internals are intact, fans and all. They get hot, they are loud and you have to wait for them to boot-up. Although it might look like an iPad in theory, it could never work like an iPad. Meaning, the instant on abilities that make an iPad so assessable and useful are none existent; the super lightweight and uber thin design is compromised and as I mentioned before you can hear that they are on. On the plus side, thanks to the new Windows 8 innovative thinking, you can run the new Metro UI and operate your Slate PC as you would a tablet, all the while having the ability to enter what is known as “Desktop Mode.” Metro UI brings with it a whole new feeling, which means new and exciting looking apps, but if you should need to revert back to some sort of legacy app (as enterprises will most certainly do,) you have the ability to run the app without compromise. In essence, you can run the pretty new UI and switch back to that legacy Windows environment when you need to with ease. The best of both worlds indeed! However, Slate PCs fall under the x86/x64 family, remember what you’ve learned.
Windows 8 and its Metro UI is more than capable of captivating the consumer with its ease of use and flashy ways, however, this could never be achieved on a Slate PC platform. Aside from the downsides I have listed before, the hidden factor here is the dollar amount. If the iPad is to be challenged, Microsoft had to support the cheaper, more industry standard and obviously more sensible ARM architecture. For a good while I had imagined they would simply run the Metro UI and dump the desktop mode, this on its own would be a winner; but on further investigation this would create a problem. Developers would be left in the cold with more work to do and\or alienated from a division of the product. They would now have to develop two separate version of one application. Microsoft set out to find a way around that, in true Microsoft fashion, everyone had to be pleased. Rumors be damned, they did it, they found a way to include the “Desktop Mode” into the ARM offering of the OS. Interesting!
This now translates into real competition to the iPad’s firm grip in the tablet market. Embracing the ARM architecture means we could now have razor thing designed, super lightweight devices from various OEM, featuring instant on performance, all at highly competitive prices with none of the Slate PC downfalls. To put this into perspective, Microsoft has found a way to somehow optimize the traditional Windows OS down to mobile device hardware. Still don’t get it? Think it’s no big deal? Look at it this way; it would be the equivalent of Apple optimizing Mac OS to be operational on iPad spec hardware. Do you get it now? In fact, Apple is heading in the opposite direction, they are porting iOS features into their x64 platform OS. I am not one to judge apple (this is a complete lie,) but that never made much sense to me.
WOA will offer consumers, power users and enterprise clients something they’ve never had in a tablet. Sure they’ve had slick UIs, great battery life performance and awesome design, but for the first time, they will have the power of a full desktop. An incredible feat by all means, but there is still more. Upon some more digging and reading between the lines, some compromises had to be made. It turns out, the desktop mode to be featured on ARM isn’t a true desktop mode. It had to be scaled back a bit. So far, what I have gathered is the desktop mode is “emulated” if you will. Although it might look and act as a traditional windows PC, the under workings is a bit different. Microsoft mentioned traditional x86/x64 applications will not run on ARM, but they have provided some very good ground work in the latest version of Visio Studio to help developers port their apps to the environment. Even the Office 15 apps are special tailored for the platform.
A good way to think of this would be a citrix or terminal server environment, where everything looks like a normal desktop to the user, but the driving technologies under the hood are not. I have some reserves about this. Developers still need to be proactive to ensure a seamless user experience. Give a user something that looks like a desktop and they will treat it as one, what will happen when you go to install your latest version of tweekdeck? What happens if tweekdeck didn’t get around to optimizing their app for ARM? I thought this is what was avoided before, I was wrong. In all fairness this is new ground, and Microsoft does provide tons of tools and resources, and they have been great about getting developers on board. Not to mention, this whole notion is tremendously aspirational in its own right. Although the magic going on behind the scenes is not as streamline as we would like, to the end user the outcome and over all experience will no doubt be excellent.
WOA will have clear advantages when it hits the market. Metro UI, Desktop Mode and fully functional Office suite are some of the strong points that will make the product appealing to many. Personally I am holding strong to my reserves until I can get my hands on some hardware to test. As a content producer and not consumer, the compromises made to WOA might steer me towards either a Slate PC or an alternate form factor of an Ultra Book. For the consumerist out there, hang tight! WOA might be a slice of perfection you never seen coming!