Windows 8: Fragmentation of the hardware ecosystem is inevitable

When it comes to the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT, it's going to take more than a sticker to educate users.

With about six months to go until Windows 8 is available, OEMs are beginning to offer us a glimpse at the hardware they plan to use to tempt our wallets and purses open.

We're already starting to see some interesting ideas and innovative hardware designs for categories of products that didn't exist a few months ago. It's becoming clear is that Microsoft's next operating system will result in significant fragmentation of the consumer hardware platform, and on a scale that we've never seen before.

Windows 8 will fragment the consumer hardware platform into four distinct categories, three of which will be new to the majority of consumers.

Traditional x86-powered desktops and notebooks

These are the standard desktop and notebook systems powered by Intel and AMD x86 CPUs, driven with a keyboard and mouse or a touchpad. This is the Windows-powered hardware that most consumers are already familiar with.

Touch-enabled x86-powered desktops and notebooks

These are traditional desktop and notebook systems retro-fitted with touchscreens in order to leverage the touch-optimizations built into Windows 8. However, adding touchscreens to existing hardware brings with it a whole ranger of ergonomic issues that I have previouslydiscussed. I don't expect this hardware to become mainstream and it is likely to be a niche product.

x86-powered tablets

These tablets will be capable of running both new Metro applications designed for the Windows 8 and traditional Windows applications. These will be the tablets for users who want backward-compatibility with their existing software and hardware.

ARM-powered tablets

This hardware will represent the biggest deviation from the current lineup of Windows hardware. ARM-powered tablets will run the specifically designed Windows RT operating system. This platform will run Metro apps and ARM-specific software. There will be no backward-compatibility with existing Windows software.

The takeaway

This is a lot of new hardware for consumers to get their heads around. Granted, Windows-powered x86 tablets have been around for over a decade, but they've hardly been on the consumer radar. So far the only tablets that consumers have been exposed to in any volume are iPads and a selection of Android-powered devices from a variety of manufacturers. Windows running on a tablet will no doubt be seen as a novelty, at least for a few months.

Back when Windows Vista was new, I remember how consumers had no end of trouble figuring out which PCs supported the Aero Glass effect and which didn't. And remembered, Aero was entirely cosmetic feature and unimportant in the scheme of things.

It didn't affect what software they could run and didn't impact hardware or software compatibility. OEMs used a sticker system to highlight systems that were "Vista Capable" and as such supported features such as Aero Glass, but this system was ineffective, even resulting in a lawsuit.

With Windows 8, it will be critical for Microsoft -- or the hardware OEMs -- to come up with an affective way to differentiate between the different capabilities offered by different editions of Windows and the hardware the operating systems are running on. This will be particularly important when it comes to x86 versus ARM tablets, given the thorny subject of backward compatibility. When it comes to the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT, it's going to take more than a sticker to educate users.

Unless consumers are educated about the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT, people will end up buying the wrong product.

The inclusion of the word 'Windows' in the name of the ARM-specific version gives the erroneous impression that the difference between Windows RT and the other Windows 8 editions is like the difference between Windows Home Premium and Windows Ultimate. In reality, the difference is more like the difference Windows and Mac, or Windows and Android.



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