What You Need to Know About Windows 8
This week Windows 8 passed a major milestone and the final version was made available to many of those responsible for its future. Most everything you’ll read will be debating the radical new interface formerly called “metro”. The real impact of Windows 8 is so much larger. The difference for consumers goes way beyond flat tiles, a missing Start button or a touch screen interface.
Most of my readers know I never was a fan of the 64 bit version of Windows. As I wrote last year, “64-bit Windows is Here, Like it or Not”, continues to be true. As a developer, the changes created quite a learning curve and many hours of programming, testing and customer support.
When first released many users stayed away from 64-bit Windows because it didn’t support some of their old programs or devices. If you purchase a new desktop or laptop today it’s unlikely you’ll even have a choice. Well, the change to 64-bit Windows is nothing compared to what’s coming with Windows 8.
Windows x86/64 or Windows ARM
When the time comes to purchase a Windows 8 system you’ll want to know the kind of processor is used.
Windows PC laptops and desktop computers generally have processors from Intel or AMD that use the x86\64 based instruction set. Smart phones, tablets, camera’s and many other new devices use chips with a completely new instruction set called ARM. The major advantage of the ARM design is that is uses far less power than traditional processors and can be built into smaller spaces with less heat.
No single company makes the chips using the ARM instruction set, but the specification is owned and licensed by ARM Holding, based in Cambridge, UK. It’s based on the idea of “Reduced Instruction Set Computing” or RISC. The ARM design and instruction set was originally developed by the Acorn Computer Group in 1985 as “Acorn RISC Machines”.
ARM now known as “Advanced RISC Machines” was created in 1990 as a collaboration of Acorn, Apple and VLSI Technology. The Apple Newton PDA was based on ARM technology. ARM chips for Windows have been announced from NVidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.
Microsoft’s plan is the release a separate “Windows on ARM” (WOA) now called “Windows RT” so companies can create tablets for Windows that will be smaller, use less power and take advantage of other features that may only be possible on an ARM based device. This has been a huge development project for Microsoft and this week they made Visual Studios 2012 available allowing developers to create both x86/64 and ARM based Apps.
Which Windows are you Buying?
Consumers need to know if they are buying a tablet or convertible laptop with Windows RT using an ARM processor or a traditional system running on an Intel or AMD processor. A Windows RT machine will only run programs specifically created for ARM processors. Even programs from Microsoft will be limited. On release you’ll find Internet Explorer but for Office users you’ll be limited to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. It makes my changes for 64-bit Windows look like a stroll in the park.
The good news, Microsoft has provided plenty of options with respect to programming languages. The bad news, how a program communicates with Windows is brand new. Developers won’t be able to just recompiled their current applications. New Windows RT apps will need to be designed for the new Windows 8 interface. Just like programs for an iPhone/iPad or Android device, new Apps will only be available from the Microsoft Store.
At this time I can’t advise readers on when they should feel comfortable making the purchase of an ARM only based Windows machine. I suspect many of us will continue to use our traditional PC’s while the tablet market grows. If the price is right, many of us will pick up an ARM based Windows tablet or convertible laptop for a variety of reasons.
The change to ARM based code is a major risk for Microsoft and indicates a major direction for the leader of the computer industry. History will show if this is bold leadership or a desperate move to compete with the expansion of the smart phone/tablet industry.
Ultimately, like it or not, what we call a computer is changing. I have a personal interest in programming in ARM assembly code and will be expanding my security research to new WindowsRT tablets. The reduced instruction set reminds me of my start in the PC market when I programmed Commodores and the Apple II using the 6502 chip.
The economy of my upstate NY neighbors may also depend on the success of a new GlobalFoundries chip plant which has invested heavily in the ARM chip design. The success of ARM based devices could directly impact my local taxes.
I’ll continue to write more so stop by again, especially before you purchase a device that says it comes with “Windows 8”.
Update from Bloomberg: David Schmoock, head of Lenovo North America says Windows RT systems using ARM chips will sell for $200-$300 less. Schmoock predicts Windows RT will be a good consumer box while corporations will stay with Intel based Windows 8 for compatibility.