Windows 8 on ARM: Microsoft bets on Office 15 and IE10
WOA: hardware saviour to software challenges?
Steve Ballmer wasn't kidding when he said Windows 8 could be Microsoft's "riskiest product bet."
With two-and-a-half weeks to go until Microsoft delivers the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, time has run out on holding back and Microsoft is now telling Windows devs just what they're in for with the next version of its PC client.
We're looking at an operating system that fundamentally changes the way apps will be written for, and delivered to, versions of Windows.
And while Microsoft has tried to cushion the blow with some developments on app-coding, this remains a huge step change in the development and consumption of software on Windows. It's also a change that's owes much to Apple's iPad.
The problem for Microsoft is that, unlike Apple, it has so many more commercial and off-the-shelf apps and app partners that it must convince to work the new way. These are people already going for existing Windows.
Windows on ARM (WOA) – unveiled just over a year ago – is the big break point. And it's not so much that the future is WOA and nothing else – Windows 8 will continue on Intel and AMD, so those uncomfortable with Microsoft's new approach can keep on using the old methodologies – the problem is that Microsoft's development and marketing focus is on tablets in general and WOA in particular.
Fittingly, the Windows 8 consumer preview will be officially launched at the Mobile World Congress on 29 February. All previous Windows launches have been Microsoft events supported by PC OEM partners.
We already knew that existing x86 apps would not run on Windows 8. Now, though, we've been told that two apps will squeak though – but that they are Microsoft apps, not partners' apps. The two apps are: a version of Microsoft's Office – the upcoming Office 15, currently in technical preview – and Internet Explorer 10.
Office on ARM was touted by Windows Chief Steven Sinofsky in January 2011 when Microsoft's commitment to WOA was announced, ending Redmond's x86 monogamy.
Now, according to Sinofsky, WOA will "include" desktop versions of the new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. It is unclear what "include" means in this context; it might suggest Office will come as part of a bundle, but the suite makes some serious money for Redmond so it's unlikely the company would just give this away. Somebody will pay, whether it's the consumer buying the device, the OEM swallowing the price, or Microsoft.
It seems Office 15 will run on the desktop of WOA PCs, and won't be rewritten for the Metro-UI side of Windows 8.
Further, it seems while IE 10 will run on the desktop and Metro editions of Windows 8, plug-ins for Microsoft's browser aren't being allowed on ARM full-stop. That means no Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight, ruling out many line-of-business apps, web media and ads.
Microsoft last year released an IE10 platform preview that saw plug-ins banned from Metro UI but allowed on the desktop.
According to this All-Things-D interview that was posted on exactly the same day as Sinofsky's official blog appeared, IE plug-ins for WOA desktop edition are also out with Sinofsky "noting the trend in the industry away from supporting Flash on mobile devices".
This confirms what we have written: that WOA would be locked down tight. Gone are the days of the ever-expandable Wintel PC, bloated with vendor crapware and whose sparkling performance became a wheezy jogger's crawl six months out of the box.
Battery burn baby, burn
Microsoft wants to ensure that WOA does not fall over and does not burn up the battery – the latter especially is one of the big plusses about ARM. Sinofsky says one reason there aren't any x86 code ports or virtualisation of existing apps on ARM is because this would defeat the idea of longer battery life.
"Consumers obtain all software, including device drivers, through the Windows Store and Microsoft Update or Windows Update," Sinofsky wrote.
Software companies run a huge risk when they change basic tenets or established practices of coding for their software. They risk losing partners and customers that might want to stick with the existing way of working and may drift over to the competition. In Microsoft's case, the threat is less that devs drift to Apple – as there's relatively little historical crossover there – but that Windows devs stick with the x86 way of life.
Microsoft hopes to keep devs on side with its conscious decision to keep the desktop and not jettison it entirely for a future of Metro-UI touch and the Windows Store. Hence Office 15. It's also the thinking behind WinRT.
Sinofsky blogged: "Some have suggested we might remove the desktop from WOA in an effort to be pure, to break from the past, or to be more simplistic or expeditious in our approach. To us, giving up something useful that has little cost to customers was a compromise that we didn't want to see in the evolution of PCs."
Success for Microsoft's Windows 8 bet will depend on two factors, however. The first is whether WinRT proves to be as smooth as Microsoft has contended. If so, then it stands a chance of carrying existing developers skilled in programming for Windows. This is something Microsoft is counting on, to open up a new platform to its standing army of coders.
WinPho and Silverlight once more
This kind of thinking was also found in Windows Phone and Silverlight. That is, if you made the tools and development framework smooth and painless enough for existing Visual Studio PC coders, they could also code for Windows Phone or Silverlight. The market didn't flip.
The second factor Microsoft is banking on – and which is more or less out of its control – will be popularity of ARM PC devices running NVIDIA, Qualcom and Texas Instruments designs that are due at the "same time" as Windows 8 for x86 systems. It's the sexiness of the device and its ease of use that has helped sell things like the iPad, iPhone and Kindle to end user and coder alike. Large market share has given developers something they can address, not simplified coding frameworks and tools.
The ARM PC makers have proved a lot less leaky and showy than their x86 cousins, so it remains an unknown just what's coming and whether they can seduce devs as successfully as Apple's iPhone and iPad. So far, all we have is Sinofsky's predictable promise that what is coming will have been worth waiting for.
"PC manufacturers are hard at work on PCs designed from the ground up to be great and exclusively for WOA," Microsoft's Windows man said.
The bet is still in play. ®