Windows 8 for ARM, x86 to launch at the same time

Microsoft President Steven Sinofsky has announced that Windows 8 for devices with ARM-based processors is on track to launch at the same time as Windows 8 for computers with x86 and x64 chips. He’s also confirmed that Windows on ARM (WOA) will look and feel almost exactly like WIndows for x86 — but there will be some key differences.

What to expect from WOA (apps, user interface)

Windows on ARM will have the same login screen, start page, and Metro style user interface we’ve seen on Windows 8 for other platforms. But Microsoft has confirmed that WOA will also have a desktop-and-taskbar view that gives you a more traditional Windows experience.

That means if you pick up a Windows 8 tablet with an ARM-based chip, you’ll be able to plug in a keyboard and mouse and treat it like a desktop or laptop computer.

But as expected, WOA will not be able to run apps designed specifically for x86 or x64 architectures. That includes virtually every Windows app that’s been designed to date. The only way to support those apps would be to write some sort of chip architecture emulation software which would kill some of the benefits of ARM-based hardware such as long battery life.

Microsoft also points out that virtually all of the legacy apps that WOA won’t run were designed for keyboard-and-mouse input, and many Windows 8 ARM computers won’t have that hardware. Instead the company is encouraging developers to write new apps that take advantage of the finger-friendly Metro user interface.

Microsoft Office 15 and other apps

Interestingly though, Microsoft Office 15 won’t be a Metro app. The company’s next-generation office suite will run on WOA, but the new versions of PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and OneNote will run in desktop mode.

There will also be Metro-style apps for mail, calendar, photos, and other functions. We may see some of these apps in the upcoming Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

Advantages of WOA

So why buy a Windows 8 device with an ARM chip instead of an x86 processor? Here are  few reasons:

  • These new devices will have lower power usage and longer battery life.
  • They’ll support a “connected standby” mode instead of sleep, hibernation, or “off” modes — allowing the device to spring to life as soon as you hit the power button, and continue collecting information from the internet even when the screen is off.
  • Low-power ARM chips generate less heat and will enable thinner and lighter fanless Windows devices.

WOA restrictions: You can’t install it yourself, you can only get apps from the Windows Store

Microsoft is working closely with Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and Texas Instruments to develop Windows on ARM — and each of those companies is working with hardware partners. Unlike Windows for x86 and x64 chips, it looks like you will not be able to purchase WOA and install it on off-the-shelf hardware yourself. If you want a WOA computer you’ll have to buy one that comes preloaded with the software.

In other words, it doesn’t look like we’ll be running Windows 8 on the HP TouchPad anytime soon.

There will also only be one place to download new software for WOA — Microsoft. The company will only offer software updates through the Microsoft Update process, and the only place to download WOA apps will be from the new Windows Store.

On the one hand, this will ensure that you won’t accidentally try to install legacy x86 apps on a tablet that can’t possibly run them. On the other hand, I suspect this will lead hackers to try to jailbreak Windows 8 hardware in order to install apps that are rejected from the official Windows Store for one reason or another… or apps which simply aren’t submitted at all.

Testing Windows 8 and WOA

Microsoft will launch the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 for x86/x64 at the end of February.

Soon the company will also make a limited number of test PCs with WOA available to developers and hardware partners. These machines will be available for testing purposes only and will probably look different from the WOA hardware expected to go on sale later this year.

  • Carlton

    Windows on ARM (WOA) isn’t Windows 8.  It’s a completely different animal, since there will be VIRTUALLY NO INTEROPERABILITY between WOA and Windows 8 on x86. 

    The WOA advantages listed above apply on vs. x86 devices, not to ARM devices running other operating systems. 

    Thus, there appears to be no compelling reason to get WOA devices. 

    iOS and Android have such a commanding lead over Microsoft in apps for ARM that WOA will be an also-ran, and WOA will be a marketing disaster

    I’m betting that Intel will redouble its efforts and narrow the gap between ARM and x86 hardware in battery life, heat, size and weight.

    So it looks like I’ll have multiple devices (iOS, Android, Windows on x86) for the foreseeable future.

    • Bob

      >Thus, there appears to be no compelling reason to get WOA devices.

      Before you go off ranting like a teenage fanboi, may be you should read the original blog post.

      Win8 x86 has major code commonality with WOA (MS’ newly-minted acronym). WOA has significant differences–with both advantages and disadvantages. One major benefit is the “connected standby,” by which you do not turn the unit off, and battery would still last weeks at a time (per the blog at least). Office reportedly will be built-in to WOA, which is a big perk for productivity uses. This expands tablet use to more than just “consuming content.”

      Another reported benefit is binary compatibility between x86 and WOA apps, as long as they’re written to the WinRT API.

      Drawbacks include no end-user installs for WOA, that each device would have its own specific OS compilation. There’ll be no emulation, and of course, no backward compatibility with legacy Win apps. But we knew these already.

      There are other substantive differences noted in the blog. Really, you can use a little more reading and less pompous pontificating.

      • Carlton

         Lack of backward compatibility will ensure that end users will be using Windows 7 for a very long time, just like Windows XP.  Windows 8 is looking more and more like Windows ME.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft included emulation in the future, as a service pack feature.  Otherwise, I believe the only way people will buy WOA en masse is if apps, comparable to those found on Win 7, are priced very inexpensively like they are on iOS and Android. 

      • AppleFUD

        Software got ported to Vista & Win7 rather quickly. It’s very doubtful that devs will not rework their apps to work on both x86 & ARM for Windows, and do it quickly. It’s natural for Windows developers to write their programs for several versions of Windows–currently XP, Vista, & Win7 are the minimum currently. Throwing ARM into the mix won’t be that big of a problem for most, especially those that are already writing cross-platform apps for Mac, Win, and Linux.

        While I hope that Win8 doesn’t stomp out all the competition once again and we end up with another Win OS monopoly. . . it isn’t looking good for competitors. Just think about it, I will be able to buy an ARM Win8 tablet–a very portable one–that can easily dock and replace my desktop and will have heavy lifting apps such as MS Office. No iOS device can do that–apple restricts the use of a mouse on iOS devices so you have to purchase a Mac & has no “desktop mode.” Android can do it but it isn’t as polished as Win8 esp for desktop mode nor does it have anything close to MS Office at this point in time.

        And if that isn’t bad enough. Just add in that Intel is pushing very hard for better mobile chips–fanless & lower power. You will most likely be able to pick up a x86 tablet that has near ARM power and doesn’t have a fan–then all your arguments are completely null & void.

        Apple & Google need to step it up even more than they currently are.

        The one big negative for Win8 is how they are locking it up like iOS. That could be a deal breaker for many. My current Win7 setup is almost exclusively FOSS–portable apps to be more specific. So, IMO, that’s the one bad area of Win8 that may push people toward Android–since iOS is no different and those that want apple really aren’t going to look at anything else ;)

        No, this race isn’t over. It’s just starting.

  • John Morris

    In other words, here is where the chains go on.  We have been waiting for the Xboxing of the PC and here it is.  Only locked hardware will run WoA and only locked software will be allowed to run on it.  And of course expect all sorts of content deals that will only work on WoA.  Then they either migrate x86_64 to locked hardware, so users can get all that content and the apps that won’t be allowed to be sold onto unlocked hardware, or just deprecate it entirely.

    The PC dies, Microsoft regains a new refreshed monopoly.

  • Pete

     Hoping for an ARM based slider UMPC!

    • SomeDude

       Hoping for that too. One thing I noticed though was that while Metro apps are compatible between ARM and x86, desktop apps won’t since WinRT is only for Metro apps.

      I hope devs can target both x86 and ARM when writing desktop apps.

      • Bob

        >I hope devs can target both x86 and ARM when writing desktop apps.

        It will happen. Inclusion of Office legitimizes desktop apps on ARM, which means most will come with keyboard & pointer (either standard or detachable laptop style like Asus Transformer). ARM is better for mobility, but that doesn’t exclude the desktop UI.

        That said, it’ll take some time for the apps to build up for ARM, so usability will still be limited relative to x86 for a year or two. OTOH, instant-on, long battery life, and smaller devices are offsets.

      • Anonymous

        Sounds to me like Microsoft will not support Win32 on ARM exist for their own applications. 

        And perhaps Intel is getting their act together on low power Atom.  See http://news.cnet.com/8301-13924_3-57359288-64/new-intel-chip-takes-fast-jabs-at-iphone-galaxy-nexus/?tag=txt;title

      • Bob

        >Sounds to me like Microsoft will not support Win32 on ARM exist for their own applications.

        I doubt anything is carved in stone yet. Much is still in flux for WOA. Excluding any app category for WOA wouldn’t make much sense, as that only limits WOA functionality. One rationale for doing so at this point is to reduce the workload, to make sure WOA gets done in time for year-end release, concurrent with x86 release. If you’ve noticed, WOA is about 4 months behind x86 dev. When the x86 Consumer Preview is released by end of Feb, WOA will only get basically the Developer Preview, which was released last Oct for x86.

        >And perhaps Intel is getting their act together on low power Atom.

        We’ll have to wait and see how Medfield does, but I doubt ARM will lose its power efficiency edge any time soon, or at least for Win8. Another factor is price. ARM devices will cost less.

      • Anonymous

         ARM devices will cost less to build but not necessarily cost less to the consumer.

        Products like netbooks are sold with smaller than average profit margins compared to the rest of the market and most companies can’t lower their profit margins to directly compete with such low profit margins.

        Though for Smart Phones and such, they are likely to hold on to a edge.

        While power efficiency has to also be balanced against other features like performance and we’ll have to wait and see if Intel can bring power efficiency to good enough levels and still hold onto their performance edge over ARM.

        Medfield is just the beginning but most of what Intel needs to get competitive won’t be available until they go 22nm and that’s next year.