The future of Windows desktop apps: they'll just be emulated on an iPad as normal iOS apps.

Last week I wrote an article wondering whether x86-based tablets running "real" Windows will ever be as thin, light, and long-lasting as ARM-based tablets like iPads and Androids, because based on a quick glance of the current x86 tablets, they're either (1) really underpowered or (2) have short battery life. To be clear, I don't necessarily blame Intel for this.

Last week I wrote an article wondering whether x86-based tablets running "real" Windows will ever be as thin, light, and long-lasting as ARM-based tablets like iPads and Androids, because based on a quick glance of the current x86 tablets, they're either (1) really underpowered or (2) have short battery life. To be clear, I don't necessarily blame Intel for this. Instead it's that the Windows OS was designed for a different world with different devices than we're using now.

This leads to an interesting thought exercise: if the whole "Windows-versus-whatever's-next" conversation in enterprise IT is really about Windows desktop applications, won't we ultimately get to the point when a $500 iPad has enough power to run any Windows desktop app we need in a VM?

For all this talk about Windows apps and how much the enterprise needs Windows at the desktop, most of it is about legacy Windows desktop applications. In fact that's what VDI and RDS are all about. I mean if you're going to use new applications, they're either web-based / HTML5 / SaaS apps that already run everywhere, or they're apps that are written for the "post Windows" world of iOS, Android, or Windows TileWorld.

That said, if Windows is all about the legacy desktop applications, then at some point we stop getting new Windows desktop apps. Again, I'm not saying the desktop, laptop, keyboard, or big screen is dying or going away, rather I'm just suggesting that if we need a desktop app in 2020, it will not be written as a legacy Windows desktop app.

If that's true, that means that at some point, new Windows desktop applications stop getting created. Whenever that happens we'll essentially have a "freeze" for the hardware requirements for those apps.

You can kind of see this today. Whatever a Windows desktop application needs in terms of hardware doesn't change after the app is released. Office 2000 still works fine on a 600MHz single core system with 20GB of storage and 64MB of memory.

Now compare those 2000-era desktop PC specs to the power and capabilities of an iPad. The current iPad has a dual core modern architecture 1.4GHz processor, 1GB of memory, and 64GB of storage. It ought to be able to run the real Office 2000 suite no prob. Sure, you'd also have to get Windows XP loaded on it, but that shouldn't be too difficult to make work in a VM. And sure, iPads are ARM-based and Windows XP and Office 2000 are x86, but how hard would it be to emulate that in the VM? Yeah it will take some overhead, but remember today's iPad has orders of magnitude the horsepower of a 2000-era desktop, so again, we're well within the relm of possibility. (There are several existing open source projects, such as Bochs, which can do that today on a jailbroken phone.)

Of course even if this Windows-VM-on-an-ARM-tablet technology was ready to go today, you might be thinking, "But it's 2013! I don't want to run the 13-year-old version of Office. I want the latest stuff, and the latest stuff needs way more horsepower than what an iPad can provide!" This is true. But remember my whole theory is based around Windows desktop applications eventually stopping development, replaced by HTML5 apps (or whatever). So imagine for a moment that Office 2013 is the last version of Microsoft Office that runs as a Windows desktop application. Fine. If it needs a 2.0GHz dual core x86 CPU with 4GB RAM and 10GB disk space, don't you think that will be no problem for the iPad 11 in the year 2020?

By the way, I'm not suggesting that this is going to replace VDI as the go-to solution for legacy Windows desktop applications. I'm just pointing out that when the world moves off of them, we'll essentially have a snapshot-in-time hardware requirement for the last generation of Windows apps, and if we wait long enough after that, even our phones will have enough horsepower to emulate them properly.

We're already seeing this today. Remember the sickest, hottest arcade games that you couldn't even run on the best home system a few years ago? The original arcade machines didn't run on ARM, yet all those apps are in the iOS app store today and they all run perfectly on iPads. Windows apps are next.

Throughout this article I've used the iPad as an example, but it could just as easily be Android or anything else. And why wouldn't this be possible? There are YouTube videos of people getting Windows 95 to boot as a VM on Android. And you know VMware's probably got versions of this running in some basement somewhere.

So even if the performance sucks, give it a few years and throw more hardware at it. Done.

By the way, I recognized that running a Windows VM on some future ARM-based tablet will still require a Windows license. Fine. But it won't require and x86.

What's the point of all this? Just that the "we need x86 to run Windows desktop applications" argument isn't going to last forever, and that if ARM turns out to be the right processing architecture for the future, so be it.

Interesting to think about. What's this mean for Intel? What about Microsoft?

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Are you talking about this as a solution for the corporate world or for home use?

Surely one of the main points of a tablet device is that it remains 'connected' for a vast percentage of its useful life?  My tablet is pretty much just a hunk of useless glass and plastic once I'm out of range of WiFi or 3G, it is after all just a 'window' on my Cloud hosted data !!

So, if the device remains connected for 95% of its life, why can't you just use traditional application and desktop virtualisation techniques to deliver these legacy apps, just like we do today?  The key will be making these apps more usable on a tablet form factor, the balance will be whether it is more cost effective to make them more usable with mobility tools or just rewrite natively !!

This is why I asked whether your tablet VM approach is for corporate or home use.  The corporate world is already familiar with using XenApp or RDS to deliver this kind of functionality, why would they look at a predominantly 'offline' tool like a tablet VM to fill this gap...we have seen this fail comparatively miserably in the 'client virtualization' world.

I suppose this could work for home use where you don't have the infrastructure to deliver virtualised apps, but if the tablet VM solution ends up being as user friendly as the type 2 hypervisors available today for traditional desktops then it will fail miserably as these are typically too complex for your average home user to configure and use.


A couple of additional thoughts:-

I suppose an iOS or Android tablet has the advantage of being a closed hardware platform with a finite device list, which should make it easier to code a more user friendly type 2 hypervisor.

How will these apps be delivered?  Will Apple allow Windows apps which have been 'wrapped' in a way to allow them to be virtualised to be delivered via iTunes?  The corporate world has the advantage of being able to wrap and deliver these using existing MAM tools, but not your typical home user.

Will this be a full Windows VM running on the tablet device or just a 'shim' which supports each app?  How will you get the legacy app 'into' the OS or shim, as many tablets (iOS) have very little capability to manage files/apps  without iTunes or other third party Cloud infrastructure.

The arcade games you mention are not much of a comparison as these have all been completely recoded to take advantage of the tablet platform and form factor.  If you follow this argument then all legacy Windows apps will just be rewritten for iOS, something which is happening anyway and something you have discussed before in the context of Office for iOS.  If this need for your funky VM.


And finally:-

I think we are entering a phase where a larger percentage of 'end users' are a lot more savvy about technology.  I know for a fact that my 8 year old son sees the lack of an 'App' to achieve a particular task as a challenge, he'll happily find one from the gazillions of apps on the relevant AppStore and make it work for him.  With this statement in mind, do we really need all of those legacy apps anymore?  

Brian, I've heard you say in one of your podcasts that you use an 'Open' office product to meet your basic work processing needs,  how many legacy Windows apps are out there which really, sincerely do not have a basic alternative that we can use. I just looked through 'Programs and Features' on my desktop PC and out of 113 installed programs there is not one which does not have a non-Microsoft tablet alternative out there that I could download today, and for a fraction of the price of Windows alternatives.

So, are legacy apps really a problem?  We have developers out here who can knock out tablet based apps in ridiculously short timeframes and a user base which is getting more and more tech savvy and can consume these apps without any special training.  I'm sure there are plenty of corporate legacy Windows apps out there but how much of a problem are they, really?  Two years ago I was designing 'BadApp' farms for hundreds of apps, a few weeks ago I designed one for 15 apps, the rest (800) sat on 2008 R2.  Again, we're talking corporate and not home use here as I firmly believe that home users will find a native tablet alternative.

I think the focus for the future should not be on supporting legacy apps, but putting effort into making them natively tablet compliant, and infinitely more usable.  An example of simple bad tablet user experience is this....try and import an existing image from your local network (a scan of a legal document for example) pull that image into an image editor to remove some sensitive content, reduce the size of the image, add it to an existing text document and send it via email.  I can do this in under two minutes on my PC, but it took me 30 minutes on my tablet (in my case iOS).  

I'd focus on making the mobile use experience more intuitive and productive, not building a complex hypervisor solution to fix apps which are outdated and not fit for purpose in this technologically progressive world.



I disagree with you that all Windows apps will disappear and be wholly replaced by newer mobile or HTML5 apps. Most will, be many Windows apps will remain. Just consider how many mainframe and midrange systems are still in use today. By your logic, they should have disappeared long ago.

That said, I do agree that remaining Windows apps will be accessed using remoting rather than emulation on the end-points, because:

1. By 2020 we should have universal connectivity. In this context, remoting makes more sense.

2. Many of the remaining legacy apps will be client/server. It will be easier to have these sitting next to each other.

3. Hopefully by 2020 we will have computers implanted in our brains. Do you really want legacy Windows apps running inside your head?




I don't think I said that all Windows apps would disappear, attractive though that may be :-)

I was just trying to make the point that until recently legacy apps have persisted because it is easier to keep them and present them in some arcane way than it is to deal with the problem.

The landscape today allows tablet and web applications to be developed really fast. The user base we have consuming these apps is on the whole more tech savvy and capable of using them without a great deal of hassle. Even my mother has taken to her Nexus 7 and uses it now for all of her email and browsing needs and she is in her late 70's.

I am definitely seeing a shift in approach to legacy apps, 5 years ago these were seen as a real problem which needed to be catered for but they are now in many cases seen as an opportunity to clean up and improve end user productivity, my BadApp farm example is tangible evidence of this happening right now.

Yes, there will always be legacy apps  but I dont see these being dealt with using arcane tablet hypervisors, we already have a solution for application virtialisation and it works well in a high percentage of cases.


Are we ever going to get off this "everything should just run off my iPad because I'm trendy and cool" horse?

Sadly, has become the red headed step child of Engadget.  Why not start doing mobile phone reviews while your at it?  Contrary to what you believe, the majority of enterprises, especially anything publicly traded is still heavily regulated and that's not going anywhere.  Walk into any financial, pharma or government IT shop and it's still RIM and Windows.  Ok, maybe some sales guys are using iPads to do presentations.

Yeah yeah I know what your thinking "The Dell guy is trying to sell laptops"  Couldn't be farther from the truth.  In the territory I cover (the NYC Metro Large Enterprise space), Whether its Apple, Android, Windows RT or whatever flavor of the week, the tablet is a companion device with not much budging beyond that.  At the end of the day, users will always need to crank out spreadsheets, financial reports, initiate trades, model data, etc.  Things that aren't coming to a tablet near you.

Like Dan said - If we're in the post PC era, why are all those pesky mainframes still floating around?


Oh dude I totally agree. I've written dozens of times about how Windows apps aren't going away and how tablets are not replacing laptops. My point here was more about x86 versus ARM, that while Windows apps might be here forever, that doesn't mean that x86 has to be here forever. But Windows apps are meant for keyboards, mice, and huge screens. In the future that will still be ideal, but if someone wants to run a Windows app on a tablet or ARM- based convertible, that will be an option too.


Well hey, look at that:


Im sorry Brian I think you are way off. Android Tabs and iPads are nice but after I have tried a Thinkpad Tablet 2 they feel hollow. Why?  The feel of a full OS is just perfect, the battery outperform or match that of ARM devices and even the weight and physics match or outperform as well. Resolution is the weak point compared one to one but it is a 10" screen and has more than enough. It actually makes me think that there is no need to compromise and settle with an iPad or Android device but rather go with a x86 device and the retail price is even lower. Intel is just stepping into the game and AMD as well and if I remember correct the Brazo from AMD runs Linux as well. Ubuntu for Tablet is x86 and ARM ready. Just my humble opinion.