Windows 8 on ARM: Steven Sinofsky speaks

9th Feb 2012 | 18:02

Windows 8 on ARM: Steven Sinofsky speaks

TechRadar talks to the Windows boss

Windows 8 on ARM: the full details

Windows 8 for ARM tablets will come out at the same time as Windows 8 for x86 PCs, if everything goes according to plan.

Microsoft has released full details on Windows on ARM today. It will have the Windows desktop, with familiar apps like Explorer, Internet Explorer and the Windows Live apps, plus Office – but everything else will be Metro.

And no, you won't be able to install it on an Android tablet.

Microsoft is revealing the technical details of Windows on ARM – which it calls WOA for short – today.

TechRadar talked to Windows chief Steven Sinofsky about what WOA can do, when and how you can get it and which apps it will and won't run.

"Windows on Arm, WOA, is a new member of the Windows family that is built on the foundation of Windows," Sinofsky told us. "It has a high degree of commonality, a very significant amount of shared code with Windows 8. It's going to be developed for, sold and supported as part of our overall Windows ecosystem."

But he didn't want us to think about WOA systems as just PC with a different chip. "We created WOA so that it would enable a new class of PCs with unique capabilities and form factors. It's a new level of device." Think of it as a new weapon for Microsoft in the tablet battle. "It's up-levelling our ability to meet the consumer demand for a device that is reliable and performant over time. The canonical example is the reset and refresh feature and the difference between that and a clean install."

By that, he's talking about the end of 'Windows rot'; a WOA PC won't gradually fill up with cruft and get bloated and sluggish the way older versions of Windows are prone to. A WOA PC will stay snappy and responsive thanks to apps not being able to run in the background. If it gets cluttered with too many apps you don't want, you can reset it to get rid of them without losing your pictures and files.

There's no more hunting for the specific version of a driver that your PC needs on badly organised support sites. "All the updates, whether for firmware, drivers or apps, will only come through the Windows Update or Microsoft update infrastructure and the Store.

And, of course, it will have long battery life in a thin and light design with strong security and powerful applications. It's Windows, reimagined the way Microsoft thinks you always wanted it to be.

Metro, desktop and Office

WOA is very much still Windows. Microsoft is finally confirming something that we've suspected but that has been unclear since Microsoft's BUILD conference last year. Yes, Windows on ARM still has the Windows desktop. And yes, Office 15 will run on it, in the desktop rather than Metro. But there will be no third-party desktop apps for ARM

"All Metro-style apps will run on WOA just like you would expect," Sinofsky confirmed; "it's the same experience". Those are apps written in HTML5, VB, C# and XAML – and in C++ if developers prefer. That's the language most x86 Windows programs are written in, though you can't just turn an existing x86 Windows app into a Metro app (which would be a bad idea for a lot of different reasons).

"You can reuse all your code from existing apps if you want, so long as you only call WinRT APIs. If your app is going through the store and uses the WinRT APIs then it too can work on WOA and we'll provide the tools to cross compile that."

WOA will come with what Microsoft has previously been calling the next wave of Windows Live apps for Metro, hardware accelerated for speed (the way IE9 and IE10 are), already installed.

"We'll have apps from Microsoft for things like mail and calendaring and contacts and photos and storage, hardware accelerated HTML5 and a whole bunch of media formats and document formats - that all support hardware acceleration, that support offloading of computation to integrated chipsets for H264 and things like that. And all of those are included as part of WOA."

Plus you get touch-centric versions of Office (with the notable exception of Outlook), and the desktop you need to run it on, on every WOA PC.

"The other kind of app that's included for WOA are the Office 15 apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. These are all desktop apps. They're new versions that are completely compatible. They're not subset applications, they have the same file format - all of that stuff. With that of course, you also get the Windows desktop itself; for working with files, for control panel for working with devices and peripherals, Explorer, desktop Internet Explorer - all of that is part of the WOA product."

Windows 8 arm

OFFICE:Office will be part of the native suite running on the Windows 8 desktop

Given that the Microsoft Metro apps include document viewers, getting desktop Office apps is a good thing; you'll use them when you need to work with a document in detail, not just glance through it.

He didn't give us any details about the user interface for Office on WOA but Microsoft has put a lot of effort into making them work well on a tablet, Sinofsky said. The Office apps "have been retuned very significantly to support touch and to support the low power requirements of running on the WOA hardware."

That's a good reason why there won't be desktop apps on WOA from any other software vendors, just Microsoft.

The machine learning Microsoft has used to make the desktop and apps like Explorer work well with touch in the Developer Preview, even when you're dealing with a tiny button, is beyond the scope of many developers - so user interfaces in existing Windows programs would be a bad fit for WOA. Just recompiling an app would give you a program that would probably run slowly, use a lot of battery life, be hard to use and wouldn't use new WinRT features like unified search and share.

Expert users or developers can't get around the restrictions. "There's not a side-loading of x86-compatible code or anything like that. There's no other way to get compiled code on the product other than through the Store."

Not allowing third-party desktop apps makes sense but it certainly has implications. Microsoft wouldn't confirm it, but we believe this means no browser plugins for desktop IE on WOA. There's no official word on Media Center for WOA either.

So to sum up the app situation. "You have Metro style apps that can come from third parties and from Microsoft, you have the desktop and you have all the features that are intrinsic to Windows, and you have Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote apps."

WOA tablets: who and when?

WOA tablets: who and when?

Several traditional PC makers – who also make Android tablets – have confirmed that they will make ARM tablets running Windows, but there are also persistent rumours that Nokia and other phone makers will also create Windows tablets.

Sinofsky didn't confirm any manufacturers but he did tell us WOA will "be supported by a new set of partners that expand the overall ecosystem". That could just be QUALCOMM, NVidia and Ti of course; the companies that are making the different ARM platforms.

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is only for x86 PCs. That's not because WOA is behind the x86 version; it's because there isn't any WOA hardware. "These WOA PCs are all still under development, they're still being made. But our collective goal is that PC makers will ship them the same time as PCs that are shipped for Windows 8 on x86 and 64."

Developers and peripheral makers will get to see WOA first, on prototype hardware. "Over the next weeks and months following the Consumer Preview, a limited number of test PCs are going to be made available to developer and hardware partners in a closed, invitation-only program." Don't get excited: "They're already spoken for," Sinofsky warned us. And don't feel left out.

Microsoft drops full details about windows 8 on arm

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"There are no actual PCs yet. These are the PCs much like the ones we've been showing in demos. They are hardware prototypes. They're running all the same guts, just as debug boards. They're not the form factors that consumers will see, they don't have the industrial design. They're not thin and light. They have no battery sometimes!"

WOA PCs: only for WOA

"All the PC manufacturers are obviously super-hard at work on building these brand new devices that from the ground up are designed to be great - and exclusively for WOA," Sinofsky emphasized.

That means you can't take a WOA tablet and install Linux on it, and you can't put WOA on an existing ARM tablet. "It is not this level playing field across ARM devices," he pointed out to TechRadar; "Each one is unique. It's why you don't install Android on your iPhone."

Microsoft has done a lot of work to rebuild Windows for ARM and that's specifically for the hardware WOA PC makers are choosing.

"All of this is going to lead to a new generation of integrated end-to-end products. Hardware, firmware, the WOA software; it's all built from the ground up to work together, with a new level of collaboration between Microsoft, the ARM licensees, PC makers and developers of components and peripherals.

The work was across a really broad array of subsystems in Windows; some of them have been re-architected for low power and new kinds of devices, others are brand new support for things that haven't been there before."

But the way Microsoft is supporting ARM is also going to make life a lot easier for tablet manufacturers who've had to do a great deal of integration work putting Android onto their ARM tablets. Despite the range of hardware, there's only one version of WOA, because the Windows Hardware Abstraction Layer takes care of differences, and that could conceivably put tablet prices down.

"These PCs that we're building together are built on the hardware platforms from NVidia, QUALCOMM and Ti but they all share a common WOA OS foundation. The neat thing is all of them are running the same Windows binary," Sinofsky told us enthusiastically.

"It's a different approach that we've taken where we're working across different ARM hardware but the same Windows binaries are on each of them. We actually added more features to the HAL to work across different ARM buses, as we call them. What we're doing working across multiple ARM platforms is unprecedented."

Best of Windows, best of ARM

This is the 'best of both worlds' approach that we've predicted Microsoft would take with ARM and Windows 8. It's a tablet with tablet apps (although we expect to see slider and ultraportable form factors too and Sinofsky repeatedly said 'PC' rather than 'tablet'). But it's also a PC with the power of Windows and Office – just without many of the disadvantages.

If you want the whole of both worlds (good and bad), cross your fingers for the work Intel is doing to create low power SoC PCs. "We're doing a lot of work with Intel on this release too," Sinofsky reminded us.

"Especially when we talk about a lot of the power saving features, remember that Intel is making their System on a Chip stuff as well and everything we're talking about applies to those Intel chips." That would give you an ultra-low power system that gets the always-on Connected Standby feature and could run all your old Windows apps too, although those apps could weigh the system down and don't get all the advantages of WinRT.

The question is how many people want that 'belt and braces' approach and that's more Intel's problem than Microsoft's. With Windows on ARM, Microsoft is betting that the tablet market is going to be big, especially for tablets with long battery life and the advantages of a PC – like running Office.

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