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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I think the reason for the furor is that Windows key selling point over the years has been its huge roster of applications. This roster of applications existed, to a large degree, because Microsoft's key tenant for every new version of Windows has been: "maintain backward comparability" (www.youtube.com/watch). I guess that the fact that Windows 8 on ARM will not run existing Windows applications simply means that many people will not consider it to be Windows any more. In other words, the cause for the furor IMO isn't the lack of backward compatibility in this scenario, but the fact that Microsoft decided to call this OS "Windows 8", rather than, say, just "Metro".

Obviously people will be able to access legacy Windows applications on these platforms if they need to using remote access technologies. But the same is also true for iOS and Android, so this form of "backward compatibility" will not be an advantage for Microsoft.

I definitely agree that in general users will prefer applications designed for the touch interface rather than remoted applications designed keyboard and mouse. In other words, I also think people will usually use touch applications, and connect to "legacy" Windows applications only occasionally. In this context I think our (Ericom) approach with AccessNow makes sense: you can easily access the remote applications if and when you need them with just one click (on a URL), without having to install and configure a special remote access client.



Wow, I just spent about 10 minutes writing a long post and it got eaten.  I'll try again but this time... it won't be as good.

Anyway... the problem with ARM is, as you pointed out in your article, that they don't make CPUs, they license their technology to other companies who either make the CPU themselves or have someone do it for them.  That has advantages and disadvantages.  You talked about the advantages and I'm going to talk about the disadvantages.

Since I'm a Linux guy, and since Linux is used on the vast majority of ARM-based devices out there (not counting those made by Apple of course), I've seen the toll ARM has taken on Linux.  What would that be?  Well, since so many different companies are licensing ARM and doing their own chip designs there are literally hundreds of ARM processors all different... like twisty little passages, all different.

The Linux mainline kernel developers finally convinced the embedded device makers that they should get their code into the mainline Linux kernel rather than trying to maintain their own independent forks.  That effort has worked.  The problem it has caused is that no one was working together and the hardware was all different and the software implimentations were all different... and there wasn't anyone knowledgable enough to have a bird's eye view and co-ordinate and consolidate ARM development.  That caused dozens and dozens of different implimentations of ARM.  Finally an organization was created to address that problem and yes it has gotten better but the underlying problem still remains.

Windows has done a fairly good job at supporting a wide range of hardware on the x86 / x64 platform.  Linux has done a fairly good job of supporting a wide range of hardware on the x86 / x64 platform... as well as a dozen or more CPU platforms (better than anyone else including NetBSD which has the goal of supporting as many platforms as possible).  Apple has done a good job at supporting the very narrow range of hardware they produce.  That is the historical context.  Yes, Microsoft did support 4 CPU families with NT but the marketshare of three of those was extremely small and they didn't last very long.

To me the tablet market is mostly a fad... and iFad.   I rarely ever have called things a fad.  Only Apple and Amazon have done well so far.  It is pretty clear why.  Apple had such big successes prior... and had already built a media semi-monopoly... and they spend more money on marketing/advertising that anyone else.  Amazon's Kindle Fire is more Kindle than tablet.  Amazon already had a large base of loyal customers who wanted their next device, no matter what it was, as long as it was a workable vending machine for Amazon's media semi-monopoly.  If even Google can't build another media monopoly for their music and video cloud offerings, who else stands a chance?

The desktop and LOCAL APPLICATIONS aren't going away any time soon.  Even wtih all of their success over the past few years with Mac laptop and desktop sales, Apple only chipped away 1-2% of Microsoft's desktop monopoly.

Everyone surely would like to change the playing field by changing the processor and reseting Microsoft back to 0... and that is going to be successful to a certain degree, just not to the degree you seem to think it will be.  I'm not against that change happening, after all, I'm a Linux guy. :)


>The desktop and LOCAL APPLICATIONS aren't going away any time soon

Too right. I've got a new Android phone arriving tomorrow. The first thing I'll do is open the Market APPLICATION and download about 10 applications. In fact, one of the main reason I'm upgrading is to get more space locally so I can install more applications. I ran out of space on my existing HTC Desire.

Yes, these applications require far less maintenance than Windows apps, are much smaller, but they are still local apps running locally to maximise the not-inconsiderable power of the modern mobile phone. The big difference is that they tend to get their data from the cloud but that's not a modern or magic idea either. It was bleeding obvious and just needed the wireless "LAN" to get fast enough to allow us to write what are apps very similar to traditional client-server apps with the added twist that you tend to do as much on the server as possible. But hang on, hasn't SQL Server *always* sort of done that. In terms of architecture, there's not *that* much difference between the way Google Maps and Microsoft MapPoint or AutoRoute worked/works. The big difference is the availability of the big datasets but as I said, that was obvious and was just waiting for the wireless mobile network to catch-up. The first generation of PDA's paved the way for the modern mobile phone (which is why I cringe when Apple are credit with it all) but they were too early. Without the fast "LAN", they were always crippled.

Cheers, Rob.

PS. I've got a cheap Android 7" tablet and that's loaded with apps as well.


>To me the tablet market is mostly a fad

I disagree - they are the missing form factor. They make browsing the web a social activity. Often I pass over the aforementioned 7" Android tablet to my gf when I read an interesting article.

Cheers, Rob.


Or before the tablet you used to talk to your GF, which is more of a social activity?