Microsoft is working on a new version of its flagship Windows operating system which will run on computers with ARM-based processors as well as x86 chips. We’ve known that since January. What we didn’t know for certain was what it would mean for legacy apps. But now Intel is confirming that the version of Windows 8 which will run on ARM-based computers will not be able to run applications designed for Windows 7 and earlier — at least not without some modifications.
There are thousands, if not millions of applications that have been written to run on Windows computers with x86 chips. ARM-based processors use a completely different architecture, so it’s not surprising that you won’t be able to run older apps on Windows 8 machines with ARM chips. It is disappointing though.
The good news is that there will be multiple versions of Windows, including builds for x86 and builds for ARM. The ARM-based versions will be optimized for tablets and other mobile devices, while the x86 versions will likely have better compatibility with legacy software.
This does raise a question though: What exactly is the benefit of running Windows on ARM if you can’t run Windows apps on ARM?
At launch it’s likely that Microsoft’s core apps including the Windows Live suite, Office, and… Solitaire, will be available for both ARM and x86. But until third party developers start to compile ARM versions of their apps, Windows will face the same challenges any new tablet/mobile operating system does: a paucity of quality apps.
By the time Windows 8 for ARM is available later this year or early next year it will have to compete not only with Apple iOS, Google Android, and a number of Linux distributions, but also HP webOS, Research in Motion’s QNX environment, and any other mobile operating systems that happen to pop up between now and then.
Update: Microsoft is denying Intel’s claims about Windows 8… without actually clarifying which parts of the statement are wrong. It could be that the operating system could support at least some legacy apps… or it could just be that Microsoft isn’t working on as many separate versions of the operating system as claimed.