September 14, 2011

∴ Microsoft's Windows 8 Tablets: It's All About Metro

In a previous post I wondered how Microsoft plans to square the steep hardware requirements for running legacy Windows applications on Windows 8 with the limited hardware of tablet devices, while remaining cost-competitive with Apple’s iPad and Google’s many partner-built Android tablets. John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball, has been thinking about that, too, and chimes in with his take:

It’s so obvious that you can’t have your cake and eat it too on iPad-caliber devices. So my big what-if realization is this: I think Metro will only run alongside the traditional Windows desktop on Intel PCs. On ARM devices, there will only be Metro. Microsoft might call it “Windows” but they call everything “Windows”. To put it in Apple-centric terms, it’s going to be like if Mac OS X could run iPad apps, but iPads could still only run iPad apps. Metro everywhere, not Windows everywhere.

Microsoft hasn’t come out and said this (at least that I’ve seen), but they do seem to be hinting at it:

Speaking at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, Windows chief Steven Sinofsky flatly ruled out the possibility of the company offering support for legacy Windows applications with Windows 8 on ARM.

“We’re not going to port the installed base of x86 applications to ARM. They don’t take advantage of the things that make ARM a great architecture,” he said, referring to the power-efficiency of ARM-based processors in mobile devices such as tablets.

“Metro everywhere” makes sense: that new UI is handsome, useable and a clear departure from the past. Putting it on all platforms creates a uniformity of design, a clear win for Microsoft’s customers.

And indeed, a little Googling turned up numerous articles indicating that legacy software won’t be supported on ARM-based hardware (i.e.: tablets). Gruber’s right, there’s some sandbagging going on here.

From the way Windows 8 was discussed back in June, a major selling point was its all-in-one aspect: the same OS runs on desktops, laptops and a forthcoming tablet. Andy Ihnatko, tech journalist for The Chicago Sun-Times and well-known online pundit, offered this assessment after the Windows 8 unveiling in June:

Windows 8 will run existing, traditional Windows apps. Even when it’s being run on a tablet. I regard this as a fundamental error. Friends, I found the appearance of Windows Classic within Windows 8 to be so jarring that I spent about five minutes on that preceding paragraph trying to find a delicate way to indicate that the bodily emission that dispelled the beauty was not, in fact, upper-gastrointestinal in nature. Alas, decorum and respect for convention stilled my hand.

If Ihnatko got it wrong, Microsoft has a communications problem that will lead to some very unhappy customers next fall.

If Gruber’s right, Microsoft will have a common UI across all non-phone platforms, but not a fully common core OS underneath and therefore no common software compatibility. Maybe there’s not a lot of difference between their approach and Apple’s, after all.

Hard to understand, then, how Windows 8 will beat iOS, or anything else, when it’s playing the same game in the same way. Desktop apps for desktops and laptops, mobile apps for tablets, and it all arrives for Windows users more than two years after the first iPad was sold. Hope it will be worth the wait, folks.

Or you could just buy an iPad, and be happy.