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Intel: Windows on ARM won't run 'legacy apps'

Waves flag for 'traditional' Windows 8

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Update: Microsoft has taken issue with Intel's comments on the next version of Windows. An update to this story can be found here.

Microsoft may be porting Windows 8 to the ARM architecture, but the general manager of Intel's software and services group insists she's not losing any sleep over a bruising battle in a more-competitive arena. At least when it comes to PCs.

Speaking on Tuesday at Intel's Investor Meeting 2011 in Santa Clara, California, Renée James pointed out that the next version of Windows – popularly known as Windows 8 – will be available in versions for both x86 and ARM. There will be a "Windows 8 traditional", she said, that will run on x86 chips and handle "legacy applications", meaning existing x86-based Windows apps, and there will be a separate version of the OS that runs on ARM. Windows 8 traditional, she explained, will include a "Windows 7 mode".

"[Windows 8 traditional] means that our customers, or anyone who has an Intel-based or an x86-based product, will be able to run either Windows 7 mode or Windows 8 mode," she said. "They'll run all of their old applications, all of their old files – there'll be no issue."

Not so with the ARMy flavor of Windows 8. "On ARM, there'll be the new experience, which is very specifically around the mobile experience, specifically around tablet and some limited clamshell, with no legacy OS," she said. "Our competitors will not be running legacy applications. Not now. Not ever."

Intel will have a distinct advantage, said James. "We will also be able to run that [new] experience. So for an Intel user, we'll kind of have the best of both worlds. So we think we're extraordinarily well-positioned in Windows 8."

James also reminded her audience that Intel and Microsoft are closely intertwined. "We've been working with Microsoft on Windows for probably 20 years, this year. We've been their partner for a long time – everybody writes about it, everybody talks about it," she said.

"But what you may not know," she continued, "is that we have an on-site development team in Redmond that actually works deep inside the OS to make sure that the platforms, and the features, and the new instructions – whatever new thing we're inventing – is ready to go at the time of introduction of the latest Microsoft environment."

James is bullish on Windows 8. "We've been working for the last couple of years – very, very focused – on Windows 8," she said. "I'm very excited about it. We've been working on it for a long time. There's a lot of exciting new features and things about it that I think are going to be great for users, great for the PC and tablet industry."

One major reason why James believes that Intel is not threatened by Windows 8 on ARM is the fact that x86 apps and services will work across mutilple platforms, from pocketable devices to smart TVs to notebooks to PCs to servers.

"Intel has a unified architecture," she said. "What that means is that applications and operating systems can run from one generation of Intel platform to the next generation, and the same applications are going to run, forward- and backward-compatible.

"You can run the same application between different versions of our architecture – between Atom, between Xeon, between Core – which is not the case for our competitors in the ARM ecosystem."

Intel is unified, James said, but ARM is Balkanized. "Windows 8 for x86 will run legacy, Windows 8 for x86 will run SoC." In the ARM-based world, she said, things won't be as simple. "There will be four Windows 8 SoCs for ARM. Each one will run for that specific ARM environment, and they will run new applications or cloud-based applications.

"They are neither forward- nor backward-compatible between their own architecture – different generations of a single vendor – nor are they compatible across different vendors. Each one is a unique stack," she added.

What's more, James is not at all convinced that users will flock to an ARM-based, non-legacy PC experience. "People do not change their usage models that frequently," she said. "We've done a lot of studies – you go back and you look, and on average it's about 10 years between people changing their usage patterns.

"So even though we see a huge change in the way people are using applications from the cloud, there's still a long tail on legacy – something that's uniquely a value proposition from Intel."

Of course, one could argue that a smartphone or tablet is most assuredly a new usage model, but James believes that the interconnectedness of a broad range of devices all speaking the same language – x86 – will assure Intel's dominance in a world invaded by ARM devices running Windows 8 without legacy-app support.

"For the client," she said, "compatibility and legacy, we think, is a very important value proposition, certainly in the enterprise for IT managers, and also for consumers for probably a significant number of years into the future." ®

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