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Will Windows 8 sticker shock leave Microsoft unstuck?

Metro and ARM threaten Vista-like compatibility badges

"Sticker shock" is a US phrase that denotes a shopper’s surprised and generally disgusted reaction upon discovering the true price of an item they’re buying.

Microsoft experienced a different kind of sticker shock a few years back with Windows Vista: such a memory and CPU hog was Windows Vista that most PCs of that time struggled to run Redmond's latest client operating system.

A lot of software and many peripherals also didn’t work with it.

To try and get around this Microsoft devised four stickers – two for PCs and two for software – that would be stuck on product and supposedly put you on notice. Buyer beware.

The PC stickers denoted whether your machine was "capable" or "basic", the latter meaning it could just about run the lowest version of Windows Vista - Home Basic - which lacked all the groovy new features such as the Aero interface.

The shock? An embarrassing lawsuit from punters who claimed they’d been hoodwinked into buying PCs described as capable when they were only basic. It got so bad that nobody, especially not chief executive Steve Ballmer, wanted to associate themselves with the disastrous label programme.

Windows 7 ended the madness. A machine was “compatible with Windows 7” or not. Simple. Windows 8 threatens to re-open Pandora's Box.

Windows Vista logos

The way it was: Microsoft's Windows Vista logos

This time, it’s not whether PCs are able to run the operating system that’s the problem, it’s that there are now different platforms thanks to Windows on ARM (WOA) and WOA won’t run the same way as its x86 cousins, throwing out those just about familiar and comfortable with the Windows PC as it is.

We know Windows 8 introduces the Metro UI for WOA and x86 while also retaining the familiar user interface for desktops, laptops and some tablets.

If you don’t like Metro, WOA won’t let you seek refuge in the more conventional Windows desktop. That’s because while WOA will have a desktop option, just two apps can use it – Microsoft’s Office 2015 and Internet Explorer 10.

Also, WOA radically changes one of the basic principles of the PC: the ability for home and business users to customise their machines. Freedom has been an important part of Windows and the PC, as much as price and performance, over the years - but WOA won’t let you tweak your machine by installing apps locally or off a CD or USB.

It's unlikely you'll be able to use third-party download sites, either. Instead, you’ll have to fetch new apps from Microsoft’s marketplace. A byproduct of this is you won't be able to migrate your existing apps to WOA – migration has been a litmus test of any new piece of software for decades. Also gone in WOA is the ability for you to have IE10 your way by bolting on add-ons.

Windows 8 grants new power - WOA, man

There are other differences, too, but these will be of a more welcome nature: power-up, resume and always-on promise to be radically different on WOA compared to x86 while there’s the promise of radically improved battery life and performance.

ARM is an extremely efficient architecture that’s used in systems like smartphones that - unlike your laptop - aren't often switched off and must run almost permanently. Microsoft’s Windows chief Steven Sinofsky said one reason x86 code ports and virtualization of existing apps are forbidden on WOA is because it would defeat the idea of longer battery life.

WOA will, then, be different to Windows 8 on x86. Will consumers know or care, and should they be informed of the change when it comes to buying time? Microsoft’s belief system and recent experience says yes.

Microsoft pours billions of dollars a year into making you aware of Windows and trying to make you care about its presence on PCs. That money goes on everything from a humble sticker on a keyboard to TV ads showing “genuine” shoppers “surprised” by the latest version of Windows.

When arguing against Linux or Mac, Microsoft’s logic is that without Windows on your PC you don’t get the ease or the familiarity of the Windows “experience”.

The Windows Vista basic and capable debacle proves that shoppers do care - even if it’s for different reasons to Microsoft. Shoppers care because they want to get the thing they thought they were buying. Ambulance-chasing lawyers also care and will side with disgruntled shoppers.

Microsoft has just unveiled a new logo for Windows 8, a Metro-looking flag that dumps the flying flag logo of years past. It would now serve Microsoft well to think about how it’s going to communicate the differences in Windows 8 to consumers who won’t care about trivial things like architectures and will just want Windows to work the way they are used to.

Sources close to Microsoft tell The Reg that this subject has been raised to Sinofsky but that he’s confidently brushed it aside. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it handled,” Sinofsky is said to have told one prominent Windows watcher.

The Reg asked Microsoft to explain the steps it's taking to inform shoppers of the differences in Windows 8 and whether there will there be a branding or logo programme, but a company spokesperson declined to comment. "We have nothing to share at this time," the spokesperson said.

With Windows 8 expected as a consumer preview next week and a launch due later this year, though, Microsoft’s rapidly coming to a point where it has to say what it’s got planned.

This year there should be x86 PCs and ARM systems in the market both running Windows 8 and sporting the same UI but with completely different characteristics.

A former Microsoft executive who’d worked on Windows in the past and who wished to remain anonymous told us: “What message is going to make it clear to the user that one of these Windows PCs is different to the other: that they both have the modern, Metro UI but one has the ability to run old applications and the other doesn’t," our source said. “They don’t have a good track record.” ®

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