Windows 8, Microsoft has been saying for some time, is Windows “re-imagined for a new generation of computing devices”. There will still be familiar PCs running the x86 version of Windows 8, but there will also be Windows on ARM (WOA) slates (or tablets) and ultra-thin notebooks with battery life measured in days rather than hours that won’t run any current PC apps at all. You won’t buy them like a PC and you won’t use them like a PC, because they won’t actually be PCs – not in the way we’ve thought of personal computers for years.
In the very first post on the Building Windows 8 blog Windows head Steven Sinofsky pointed out that smartphones “have changed the way we all view computing… computing is much more focused on applications and on people than on the operating system itself or the data”.
WOA slates will have plenty of applications. From the Office apps that come pre-installed, to the thousands of Metro-style WinRT apps we expect to see in the Windows Store by the time Windows 8 launches. But they won’t run apps you already have and they won’t run anything on the desktop apart from Office and IE10. That means no Photoshop (although Photoshop Touch is almost certain), no LibreOffice (unless there are Metro versions), no handy utilities, no Registry tweaking tools, no anti-virus software – and no browser plugins.
You won’t be able to put WOA on any device that didn’t come with it in the first place, and you won’t be able to install another OS on a WOA device; no Android, no Linux, no WebOS, no Hackintosh versions of OS X. That’s just like an iPad. It makes perfect sense both for technical reasons (all ARM systems are different) and for security. But it’s not like a PC.
A PC can run any operating system or application you can get to load on it; you can run any code you want. WOA devices won’t run arbitrary code, only the OS and apps specifically designed for the platform. Again like the iPad, a WOA tablet is an appliance rather than a personal computer; it’s more than a microwave or a PVR because you can add new software, but there are limits on what you can make it do. There are plenty of good reasons for that, from battery life to security to the ‘it just works’ experience that Apple has been bragging about (with various levels of justification) for years.
Registry tweaking tools and browser toolbars can take a well-set-up computer and turn it into a slow system that breaks and bluescreens all the time. Sure, if you know what you’re doing, you can tweak some settings that might improve one or two Windows features, but you haven’t needed to do that since Windows XP – and most people don’t know what they’re doing in the Registry.
A lot of what you need tweaking tools for is dealing with the mess left by badly-written applications some rubbish new PCs come loaded with. With WOA, that’s not going to be a problem.
What is going to be a problem is the things you expect to do that don’t work in WOA; Web sites powered by Flash or ActiveX controls, clipboard utilities, add-ins for Word and OneNote. Developers will have to rewrite all the features of those apps to work through Metro apps and contracts – powerful techniques that they’ll have to take the time to learn.
You don’t have all those things for iPad either, and the Flash support on Android and PlayBook tablets isn’t making them runaway successes. The iPad proves that people want thin, light, long battery life tablets with good apps and great experience. That’s very different from a powerful PC that will do whatever you can make it do (or whatever a hacker can make it do, to whatever badly configured system software doesn’t stop it doing).
With great power, the cliché runs, comes great responsibility. Putting some limits on the power of a PC makes WOA devices very different; and for some things they’ll be better than a PC. The real problem will be if people buy them not knowing that difference.