NVIDIA CEO: Microsoft shouldn’t call ARM-powered Windows tablets PCs

Windows 8 on the HP TouchPad (with SplashTop Remote)

Windows 8 will be the first full blown version of Microsoft’s desktop operating system which can run on ARM-based processors as well as x86 chips. But Windows on ARM will be a different experience for many users — because most older Windows apps aren’t compiled to run on ARM chips.

In other words, moving forward we’ll probably see key apps such as Microsoft Office, Mozilla Firefox, and Skype supporting Windows on ARM as well as Windows on x86. That’s because these apps are under active development and it makes sense for the companies behind them to ensure that they can run on all versions of Windows.

But there’s no guarantee that your favorite software which you’ve been running for the past 10 years… and which hasn’t been updated in the past two years will run on a new ARM-powered computer.

And that’s at least part of the reason why NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang says Microsoft shouldn’t position ARM-powered Windows devices as PCs — because they might not act the way people expect PCs to act.

Over the last year or two NVIDIA has become one of the most important makers of ARM-based chips thanks to the company’s Tegra line of processors which currently power a number of Android smartphones and tablets. Future NVIDIA Tegra chips will also be able to support Windows 8, so we could see tablets and possibly laptop or desktop computers running Windows with NVIDIA processors in the future.

Huang is probably right, in that it’s important for Microsoft to minimize consumer confusion about different devices.

At the same time, this sort of move could be frustrating as all get-out because the distinction isn’t all that clear. Nobody really expects an Apple iPad to run OS X apps — because it’s not a Mac. Sure, there are versions of the Safari web browser for both platforms, but fundamentally it’s very clear that a Mac and an iPad are running different operating systems.

The same will not be true of Windows 8 tablets — because Windows 8 will be able to run on devices with a variety of form factors including desktop, laptop, and tablet computers with a wide range of chips. It will essentially be the same operating system on all of those platforms — it’s just that if you have an ARM-based chip you’ll probably get better battery life and you won’t be able to run as many apps.

Odds are most of the ARM-based Windows 8 systems, at least initially, will also use the new Windows 8 Metro style user interface for full-screen, finger-friendly apps. But you’ll be able to minimize that UI and run full-blown Windows apps on any Windows 8 device, as long as the apps support ARM architecture.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten used to explaining to people that netbooks are just like any other laptop — they can run Windows and therefore they can run almost any app you would run on your full sized computer at home or at the office. They just might not run it quite as well because of the slower processor or smaller screen (if someone doesn’t get that a netbook is a computer, it’s tough explaining that the screen resolution is more important than the size).

If Microsoft and its partners really do start to market Windows 8 tablets with ARM-based chips as a separate class of machines, I’m going to have a much harder time explaining what it means when a device runs Windows instead of Windows CE, Android, or another operating system.

So while Huang is probably right that it’s important for Microsoft and other companies to manage user expectations, for entirely selfish reasons I kind of hope nobody decides to say that ARM devices aren’t PCs… because it’s hard enough explaining what a computer is already.

  • John Morris

    And that is the crux of Microsoft’s problem.  When Windows 8 ships there are going to be three and eventually four different major classes of product all wearing the Windows 8 label.

    Desktop PC with X86 Processor – Traditional Desktop, can run any app
    Tablet with X86 Processor – Can run any app, lack of keyboard an issue with some
    Tablet with ARM – Metro only, with a few notable exceptions

    and possibly

    Desktop PC with ARM – Why?  Because somebody will?

    Now add in the subclasses Netbook with X86 and Netbook with ARM and how the heck does Microsoft’s marketing explain to a non-tech customer what a particular product can run and more importantly, what a particular product will run well.  Pray they aren’t stupid enough to roll Windows Phone 7 into Windows 8 Phone.

    And this class, is why Apple calls it iOS on phones and tablets and OS X on laptops and desktops.  Microsoft is about to learn a very painful lesson.

    • Hans

      This could be fixed with an App Store (which they are making noises about).  That’s how Linux and Android do it now.  If you go off the reservation, you are on your own though.

      Regards,

      Hans

    • Anonymous

      Aside from the lack of legacy support, ARM Windows 8 tablets won’t be noticeably different from x86 Windows 8 tablets aside from performance.

      Windows 8 desktop mode will be available on both platforms, and in addition to the programs that will be updated to run on both platforms.  There will also be the development of cross platform HTML5/JS apps that along with the App Store shall make it fairly seamless process to get things working on the new systems.

      It’s just a question of how many apps will be available at launch and how well they are designed for the range of devices Windows 8 will be running on.

      While a work around for legacy support is already possible with services like Citrix available and the more powerful systems could possibly run 3rd party VM solutions.

      We still got a whole year before Windows 8 officially comes out anyway.  So they got some time to get everything ready for then.

  • Here

    On the other hand if its a “Locked In” App Store as the sole source of Win 8 apps, (and there are trial balloons to that idea out there) then it REALLY isn’t a PC. For many of us using a PC has always been about the freedom to go “off the reservation”. . . .  An App Store is fine, but I still want to be able to install a third party app (formerly known as share/freeware) of MY choosing, and NOT subject to some OS/hardware vendor’s approval.

    • Anonymous

      You should still be able to install any program you want.  Just like with many Android devices you should be free to side load apps that don’t show up on the App Store.

      It’ll just be harder to find those apps for ARM Windows 8 systems.  Since most are made to run on x86 hardware.  While those developers who decide not to go for the App Store route just won’t get MS approval and you take the risk of running their software and any problems they may cause.

      Remember, Windows 8 (on x86 hardware at least) will still be able to run Windows 7 software and that means programs can still be installed the old traditional way.  So for now it looks like Windows 8 will be more inclusive than exclusive when it finally comes out…