Over the past couple of days I've taken a closer look at some of the demos of the first Windows 8 developer releases aiming to set Microsoft's message into a larger context. There are two things that I find of particular interest: ARM support and a tile like interface as an alternative to the current Aero interface.
Perhaps these two things should be seen in reverse order: First, the new interface, which has many similarities with the current Windows Phone 7 user interface. The UI is tiles based, the layout is simple and everything can be moved and manipulated with fingers. In other words, this is a user interface for smaller devices such as mobile phones and pads. The direction is clear from the user interface and the demos shown, Microsoft seems to see Windows 8, the successor of Windows 7 and not of the current Windows Phone OS to be its next operating system for pads.
Microsoft therefore takes exactly the opposite steps compared to the rest of the industry. Apple and Google have initially scaled down a BSD or Linux based kernel to a bare minimum and then built an API and user interface around it and only then moved to larger screen devices with no legacy attached in terms of overhead. Microsoft on the other hand seems to take a different route: Take Windows 7, remove everything that's not necessary, try to make it as fast as possible, put a second user interface on it to be used on pads / tablets and other devices in the future. Given the current bulkiness of Windows 7 that's a huge challenge. I wonder how much RAM and solid state storage a Windows 8 based tablet will need in the future compared to Apple and Android, which, compared to Windows 7, are ultra "lean and mean".
This brings me to the second avenue Microsoft is pursuing, porting Windows to the ARM architecture. The idea is quite clear, Intel seems to continue to be struggling to produce anything based on the x86 architecture that is anywhere near as power efficient as ARM. And in small devices, power efficiency is the most important thing as this defines the amount of heat and size of the battery a device will feature. And quite frankly, a fan on a pad is something unlikely to acceptable to a mass audience.
But with power efficiency comes a performance limit. I think few doubt that even a dual core ARM processor running at 1.5 GHz today can't come anywhere close to even a two year old Intel Atom processor in terms of performance. But it doesn't have to, it's designed for a lean operating system and the graphics chip in the mobile device takes over when it comes to rendering web pages quickly and to stream HD videos. But I've seen a standard Linux running on an ARM chip with some applications like Firefox and OpenOffice and it was no joy at all. Things will get better over time but I have a hard time imagining Windows 8 running on a pad that is light enough that I don't need a stand for it like in the demos.
Perhaps Windows Phone 7 apps will be able to run on Windows 8 in the tiles interface? I think it's almost a must as otherwise the Apple and Google camps have a decisive advantage when it comes to apps. But if that is so and if Windows Phone 7 apps run on Windows 8 then why bother with the heavy Windows 8 on pads? Why not do it like the rest of the industry and evolve from the bottom? Perhaps the long term strategy of Microsoft is to sit this one out until ARM or Intel processor become powerful enough with acceptable energy consumption to drive a full Windows 8? And then, perhaps not only on pads but on even smaller devices. And what about Windows Phone then?
One way or another, Microsoft is running a tricky gamble here. On the one hand, they have to persuade their desktop users to migrate to Windows 8 and use the tile interface because otherwise what's the difference to Windows 7? At the same time Windows 8 needs to be lean enough to run on light weight pad devices. With or without an Aero UI mode, with ARM or with Intel, it doesn't matter it just has to run and do so as lightly as a feather. And I wonder what they are saying to their Windows Phone development team?
Exciting times it must be in Redmond!