Photo: Illustration: Ellis Hamburger
Microsoft’s Windows chief Steven Sinofsky just put up 8,000+ word blog post on Microsoft’s plans for Windows 8 on the low-powered ARM processors that today run the iPad and most other tablets.This is the most critical part of Windows 8.
Like every version of Windows, Windows 8 will probably dominate the market for traditional notebook PCs and desktop PCs.
But it also has to take on the iPad, which is now outselling desktop PCs and had sales last quarter equal to 17 per cent of the traditional PC market.
For Microsoft’s hardware partners to make Windows 8 tablets that are competitive with the iPad in terms of battery life, they’re probably going to have to use ARM chipsets.
Microsoft first announced that Windows 8 would run on ARM “systems on a chip” from Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments back in January 2011. It was a bit of a shock at the time — Windows has traditionally been sold only for Intel-type (x86 and 64-bit) processors.
But since then, Microsoft hasn’t revealed many more details, leaving us to wonder exactly what applications would be available and whether it would ship at the same time as Windows 8 for traditional Intel-based PCs.
Now, we know a lot more. The highlights:
- There will be a separate version of Windows called “Windows On ARM,” not “Windows 8 for ARM” … or “Windows 8” anything for that matter. It is not the same as Windows 8 for traditional PCs, but shares a lot of code and components.
- It will run a special version of Office. There will be versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for Windows On ARM. The apps will be designed to work on touch screens, will have full document compatibility with traditional versions of Office, and will use a lot less power than their equivalents for regular PCs.
- There will be a desktop mode for Office and IE. As we’ve written before, Windows 8 has a split personality — there’s a desktop interface that will work and look a lot like Windows 7, and a new “Metro” interface that is designed for touch. (The “Metro” interface is what Microsoft has demonstrated so far — the big colourful icons and sliding menus are a highlight.) There was speculation that Windows On ARM would run ONLY Metro style apps. That’s mostly true, but Office and Internet Explorer will also be available in desktop mode.
- It will ship around the same time as regular Windows 8. That is the “collective goal” of Microsoft and its hardware partners.
- The hardware and software will be tightly integrated. This makes perfect sense — Microsoft can’t compete with the iPad on ease of use unless it creates a similar end-to-end experience. So Microsoft has been working closely with all parts of the hardware chain, from suppliers to PC manufacturers. Also, you won’t be able to buy Windows for ARM as a separate operating system to install on your own PC — it will only ship on new machines. Microsoft will update it over the Internet automatically. Sinofsky writes “Delivering WOA PCs is a partnership with PC manufacturers who bring their expertise in manufacturing, system engineering, and industrial design and combine that with the engineering work of ARM partners to develop a complete PC.”
- You won’t power these things off. Windows On ARM PCs will be like other smartphones and tablets — the screen will go dark and it will enter a low-power mode. But you’ll probably never turn it off.
- It will not be possible to port existing Windows apps to the new platform. It’s a total rewrite.
- Windows On ARM devices will be clearly labelled. So customers will know that they’re buying a device that does not run old Windows apps.
- Apps will be available ONLY through Windows directly (built-in) or the Windows Store. Microsoft had already said this would be the case for Metro apps, but it’s apparently the case for all Windows On ARM apps — again, very much like Apple does with the iPad and App Store.
- The Windows 8 Consumer Preview coming on Feb 29 will not include Windows On ARM. It will only be the x86/64-bit (traditional PC) version. Around the next Windows milestone, Microsoft will release test PCs running Windows On Arm to developers and hardware makers. These are NOT going to look anything like the final product, and will NOT be generally available to the masses.
Microsoft says that Windows On ARM will ship on touch-screen devices other than tablets — convertibles (notebook-to-tablet) seem likely. Likewise, the traditional versions of Windows 8 (x86 and 64-bit) might be available on some tablets.
But by and large, when you see a Windows 8 tablet, it probably will be running Windows On ARM. Especially at launch, which is expected later this year.
There’s a ton more technical detail in the blog post, plus a downloadable video (not embeddable here). Read it all here.