Who cares if you can't run "normal" Windows apps on an ARM-based Windows 8 tablet?

At the Consumer Electronics Show this week, there's been a lot of buzz created by Microsoft. Most of the activity surrounds consumer technology like Kinect, phones, and tablets, though, and not Windows 8 like I'd hoped.

At the Consumer Electronics Show this week, there’s been a lot of buzz created by Microsoft. Most of the activity surrounds consumer technology like Kinect, phones, and tablets, though, and not Windows 8 like I’d hoped. I have seen stories of a handful of demonstrations of the ARM version of Windows 8 running on tablets, and that brings to mind something important that is often overlooked: the apps you run in Windows on your Intel computer are not going to be compatible with the version of Windows that runs on ARM.

Many of you know this already, especially if you were around in the late 1990’s when Windows NT 4.0 came in four different flavors (bonus points for knowing which architectures were supported). ARM wasn’t one of them, but if you tried to install your run-of-the-mill Windows apps on an installation of Windows running on Alpha (there’s two…can you name the others? They're at the bottom of the article, but you probably already Wikipedia'd it), it wouldn’t work. Switching processor architecture means, at minimum, a recompile of the code, but more likely rewritten code.

Some people are upset, and I can understand why. They’re the people that don’t want an iPad or Android tablet because they can’t manage them the same way as a Windows box. They want to see a Windows box so that they use the same apps as on their desktop, and manage the OS the same way. Windows running on ARM sounds so promising on the surface, only to take it all away on a technicality. Two, actually.

The first technicality, of course, is the processor architecture, but the second is that the ARM version of Windows 8 reportedly won’t come with the traditional Windows desktop.  While demos are still appearing with the so-called “Desktop App” accessible via the new Metro UI, other reports note that it will eventually be removed (Mary Jo Foley has been covering this all in depth).

Looking at the present day applications and management principles, you can see why they’d be upset. But if you look into the future, as Microsoft certainly has, it’s not hard to see where things are headed. People want the same apps and settings on all of their devices, no matter what or where they are. Installing things locally on the device is the most inefficient way to make that happen, even with sync. Microsoft is wisely shifting focus to the cloud, and the fact that they’re doing it with consumer devices first is no accident – consumers will be adjust and adopt a cloud mentality before big business will.

The Metro UI, which has shaped up to be more than just a UI, is also their approach to moving to the next generation of apps and services. While the kernel may be the same in Windows 8, it appears that the Win 32 interface known as the desktop and Metro UI are independent of each other.

It seems confusing, and it will until Microsoft finally gives us all the information we want, but piecing together what we know about the future of applications with what we know about Windows 8, we can see that the path they’re going down makes sense. If you have to write new apps to support the cloud, why not write them for an architecture that’s optimized for mobile devices? ARM processors are found in a whopping 90% of mobile devices, from phones to tablets.  They’re preferred for their high efficiency, low power consumption, and flexible production. ARM doesn’t actually make processors – they license the architecture to chip makers who design their own chips around the ARM technology.

ARM processors are expected to enter the PC market, too. In 2011, IDC projected that ARM processors will be in 13% of PCs in the next three years. These PCs aren’t going to be running Windows and Office like they do today. They’ll be cloud-oriented desktops with some local apps, like a web browser or client application for a cloud service. They’ll be tablets with external monitors, keyboards, and mice. The reason for this is that the world is moving in this direction, and when it gets there, you won’t need that overpowered muscle car under your desk—just the sleek, efficient hybrid.

So, while I can understand the furor over apps not being compatible with the ARM version of Windows 8, I think those that are upset need to take this opportunity to look at what the future of applications and operating systems will be. There’s a very real possibility that ARM could become the default architecture of the future, and that Windows 9 or 10 will just support x86/64 processors as a necessary evil. Something major could happen, of course. Intel is talking about their mobile chips, but unless they support the same apps (ARM-based apps) as everyone else, it’s a lost cause…just like trying to run Windows apps on a tablet.

Oh, and the four architectures supported by Windows NT? Alpha (DEC), x86, MIPS, and PowerPC.

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