Analysts are questioning whether Microsoft Corp. will be able to reach its goal of unifying tablets and desktop PCs with a single operating system after the software giant unveiled a Windows 8 prototype on Tuesday.
At its Build conference in Anaheim, Calif. Microsoft handed out Samsung tablets loaded with the developer’s preview version of its next major OS release. Built to be touch-friendly for tablet use with the Metro style first seen in Windows Phone 7, the OS groups applications and other resources into tiles that offer a more consumer-friendly interface. But the familiar desktop interface is just a click away, supporting legacy Windows applications and allowing for more complex controls.
Windows 8 is designed to run on a variety of processors, Microsoft says, including more-powerful Intel x86 processors typically found in desktops and laptops and low-power ARM processors found in mobile devices. While all processors will support the new Metro applications in Windows 8, ARM processors will not support the legacy desktop applications requiring more horse power.
“It sounds like you will have to reengineer your applications to run on ARM,” says Michael Silver, vice-president and client computing analyst at Gartner Inc. “Probably not many vendors will do that.”
Having two different versions of Windows 8 – one that runs desktop applications and one that doesn’t – could lead to consumer confusion, and trouble for small businesses that tend to adopt technology in a consumer fashion, he adds. “You could have two devices that look almost identical, but aren’t. How is the average consumer going to know?”
Microsoft is responding to the desire of workers to bring their own devices to the office with a more slick and attractive interface, Silver says. On first impression, it’s managed to strike a decent balance between offering that flashy interface while still maintaining compatibility with the legacy apps that so many users depend on.
Small businesses are already suffering some pain as a result of employees improvising to get work done instead of using standard applications issued by the office, says Roberta Fox, a senior partner at Fox Consulting. Once employees start using their own tools, there’s a chance data could have to be recaptured later if others in the company need to see it too.
“Still not being able to have your corporate applications on certain devices is going to be a problem,” she says. “If you can’t run Excel on your tablet, then where’s the productivity benefit?”
But worries over Windows 8 usage on low-powered processors might disappear by the time Microsoft is ready to release its new OS, says Mark Tauschek, a lead research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. The analyst was impressed with the hardware he saw in Microsoft’s keynote presentation at Build. He’s confident Intel Corp. will be able to continue improving on its x86 chip architecture to reduce power requirements drastically.
“Shortly after Windows 8 is general availability, you’re going to have these processors that are very small and very energy efficient,” he says. “You’re going to have tablets that run 20 hours on a charge with existing battery technology.”
The Samsung tablets loaded with the developers’ preview contained an Intel Core i5 processor with 4 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD hard disk. The screen size is 11.6”, with a resolution of 1366×768.
Microsoft hasn’t released any timeline for the rest of its Windows 8 development cycle. But Gartner expects it will come in mid-2012.
“I’d say Microsoft wants to have this ready by back-to-school for next year,” Silver says. “If it was a Christmas 2012 release, you might say that was very late.”
Microsoft also hasn’t announced whether it will be eventually migrating its smartphones to Windows 8 as well. Gartner expects this will eventually take place, but isn’t sure when.
It may be awhile before that merger takes place, Tauschek says. It’s possible that Microsoft would create a middleware platform that would allow developers to make Metro-style applications that could appear on both the Windows Phone platform and Windows 8, without actually merging the two platforms.