When Microsoft announced Windows 8, it was with a renewed focus on taking on the most popular computing commodity of recent years, namely tablets. Windows 8 will feature a standard desktop interface along with a new touch-based interface, known as Metro.
Microsoft refers to Metro as a “design language”, which is a fancy way of saying that products that are Metro compliant will have a consistent font and design look. Microsoft’s current look for the Xbox 360 console is Metro-based, but the most prominent product that Microsoft’s brought to market to date has been the Windows Phone 7 operating system; if you want a taste of what Metro on Windows 8 will be like, Windows Phone 7 should be your first port of call.
Metro isn’t just Microsoft slapping a skin on Windows 8 and continuing on its merry way with desktops and laptops, however; it’s also the core way that a new version of Windows 8 will run. Historically, Windows has primarily been written for Intel’s x86-based architecture, and that doesn’t change for Windows 8. What comes on board is a version of Windows 8 for devices running on ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) processors. ARM processors aren’t the devices used for most desktop or laptop systems, but they are widely implemented in the tablet and smartphone space, due to their lower power requirements, which means that Windows On Arm (officially WOA) will most likely first appear on tablet-style products.
This isn’t Microsoft’s first stab at Tablets; many years ago Microsoft launched Windows XP Tablet Edition with great fanfare but, aside from some very niche markets, virtually no traction in the market. Windows XP Tablet Edition was in essence a touch-capable (but not terribly functional) version of XP; subsequent operating systems from Microsoft have included touch compatibility but little of great significance was done with it at an application level.
There’s a significant change present for Windows on ARM, however, and that’s due to the fact that ARM isn’t x86; no legacy — that is, existing or old Windows applications — will run at all. Instead, new WOA applications will have to be written from the ground up. Microsoft’s likely to supply most of its applications in WOA forms. It’s already known that versions of most (if not all) Microsoft Office applications will have WOA equivalents, although they may only run in the desktop mode, even on tablets. Internet Explorer will also be bundled for browsing purposes, and while it’ll be Internet Explorer 10 in name, it won’t support plugins that will work on the x86 version of IE 10. That means, at least for the time being, that things like Flash won’t work on WOA devices, although it’s always possible that third party browsers or plugin workarounds may emerge.
Windows On ARM also means Microsoft will have even more devices to technically support; while there are many millions of potential x86 combinations of things like graphics cards, network interfaces and peripherals, for the most part external vendors handle those kinds of drivers. But you don’t — and can’t — change the graphics card on a tablet, and that means each iteration of a Windows 8 tablet will need its own updates. So far, it seems most likely that you’ll only be able to get Windows 8 on ARM pre-installed on a pre-approved tablet, so updates shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
In many ways, it’s identical to what Apple did with the iPad and iPhone. It’s theoretically possible that it could have ported the full OS X operating system across, but that would have had an effect on battery life — and not a good one. Starting afresh does mean dropping a lot of application compatibility, but if Microsoft can grow an application ecosystem to rival iOS, it should be able to overcome that particular hurdle. Microsoft has been very active in its developer community in recent years, and it’ll be fascinating to see what comes to WOA.