Windows 8: Fragmentation of the hardware ecosystem is inevitable

Windows 8: Fragmentation of the hardware ecosystem is inevitable

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

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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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Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Software, Tablets, Windows

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49 comments
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  • Windows RT will not be tablets only

    There will also be desktops that are ARM enabled too.
    adacosta38
    • More confusion

      So there will also be non backward compatible desktops and notebooks sold alongside x86 models
      kingcobra23
    • No, there won't

      Can you point us at a (credible) source for details on your ARM-powered desktops?

      ARM's primary benefit is it's frugal power consumption for which it gives up a lot of processor performance. There would be little point in having a desktop machine running (relatively) low-performance ARM processors.

      On the other hand, there MAY be ARM-powered convertible laptops/tablets like Asus' Transformer, but even these are largely tablets with a detachable keyboard (and additional ports and battery) base unit.
      bitcrazed
      • There are already ARM-powered servers

        So, can desktops be far behind?
        easson
    • now some one catches on.

      legacy x86 support can be either emulated or ran of a cloud server if you have the license for it. X86 has been around, over 20 years ago I was a young child who knew very little about computers. The 386 was the flag ship processor. Those old timer PC user know them and love them but its time for a new generation. The new is ARM

      ARM is build on newer more mobile and energy efficient designs. Even if Intel can shrink the x86 it still will nver get small enough with enough processing power to compete with arm which is still following mores law, where as x86 is pretty much maxed out.
      Bakabaka
      • Listen up, whippersnapper

        [ul][i]X86 has been around, over 20 years ago I was a young child who knew very little about computers.[/i][/ul]Truth is, you still don't know very much about computers. For sure you don't know much about ARM, which was around over 20 years ago when you were a young child. Google "Acorn Archimedes".
        Robert Hahn
  • Windows 8/RT

    Windows 8 and Windows RT will have identical user interfaces. Absolutly no differences in the user interaction model.

    The only major differences are that Windows 8 will have support for apps designed for Windows 7 and earlier, while Windows RT only supports apps designed for Windows 8. Windows RT will also come with Office (full versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Onenote) at no additional cost.

    This is no way as different as a Mac, Android and Windows.
    reidar76
    • There's the stink now

      You are stepping on exactly the turd he is warning about. There is a tendency within the Microsoft camp to stretch the "Windows everywhere" metaphor to the point where it will cause unsophisticated buyers to spend money, get angry, and hire lawyers... in large numbers.

      You are telling people all the wonderful things Windows RT will do. You left out what it won't do, which is run what most people call "Windows applications."
      Robert Hahn
  • Cut back

    Microsoft can't get out of their own way. Smartest thing they could do (which is why they won't do it) is to cut their offerings down to two--desktop and tablet. In their efforts to become Apple-killers, they'll water down their own message. Fewer, more tightly-described products--the market has proved that's what they want.
    MC_z
    • Ermmm ... WHUT?

      You want Microsoft to ship one version of Windows for desktop (I assume you mean laptops too?) and one version for tablets, right?

      How is what you're suggesting different from what they're actually doing? Windows8 is for desktop/laptop and WindowsRT is for tablets.
      bitcrazed
      • Microsoft is as usual...

        Shipping as many SKUs as possible in the hopes of snagging some "anytime upgrades". The list has gotten considerably smaller, Window 8 home (32 and 64 bit), Window 8 Pro (32 and 64 bit), Window 8 Enterprise (32 and 64 bit) (and no it doesn't say "Beam me up Stevie"), Window Phone 8, and Window RT (Reduced Technology)
        Jumpin Jack Flash
  • This has been confusing for a decade

    "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."

    I can't tell you how many Windows Mobile users have come up to me over the years asking me why they can't run Crysis on Windows Mobile even though it runs perfectly well on their Windows XP desktop.

    Oh wait, I can tell you. It is exactly 0.

    I believe that the Windows RT tablet is the only one that will sell in any real numbers and the x86 Windows tablet will continue to be an expensive, niche product.

    The great thing about the ecosystem that Microsoft is driving us towards is that as long as you buy your software from the Microsoft App Store, those applications will run on every single device you own with the word "Windows" on it. That is the ultimate in unfragmented. That is the ultimate in simple. That is where we are headed, thanks to Microsoft.

    "But I'm a power user, I'm a technical user, I don't want a dumbed down system. That's why I like iPad + Mac."

    What people like AKH don't want you to understand is that Microsoft is giving the power user all the benefits of that choice while making things much easier for the other 99% of the population.

    Are you a power user? Fine, you won't have any problems understanding the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8, between x86 tablets and ARM tablets, between touch screen PCs and traditional PCs. For the other 99% of the population, you simply tell them to purchase their apps from the MS App Store and they are good to go. In the Apple world, 99% of users are confused about why their Mac app won't run on their iPad and why their iPad app won't run on their Mac.
    toddbottom3
  • This is a lot of new hardware for consumers to get their heads around?

    Jeez, talk about making a mountain out of a molehill -

    Wiil it be as confusing as Apple's way of doing it? Where you have OS X powered latptops and desktops that can't run iOS based apps, then you have iOS powered phones and tablets that won't run Mac apps, while at the same time require 2 different apps - one for tablets and one for the phone as they don't scale up from one to the other.

    Confusing like that?
    William Farrel
    • It's simpler when you have two distinctly different OSes

      Rather than throwing the word Windows on everything. I bet you'll find more people buying Windows RT (Reduced Technology?)devices and wondering why their Windows 7 software won't work than iOS users trying to install OS X software.
      Jumpin Jack Flash
      • As opposed to throwing the letter "i" on everything?

        iTunes, iMac, iPhone, iPad?
        William Farrel
      • Not quite the same

        William Farrel, as they are not all called "the iDevice", but I do understand what you are saying.
        :|
        Tim Cook
      • William Farrel

        As hard as you may try, that dog won' hunt. You're comparing hardware, with software. People can physically hold hardware, while softwaer only exisit in a special world that doesn't contain physics. You are litterally comparing "Apples" to "lemons"
        Jumpin Jack Flash
      • That doesn't stop anyone

        from comparing MS to Apple - software comapany vs a hardware company.
        William Farrel
    • It's simple

      If I want a tablet, phone, desktop, netbook, laptop I go and buy one. The only change is that they will be all using the same modern UI, unlike Apple and Android.
      tonymcs@...
    • People aren't confused by iOS and Mac OS X

      because iOS debuted on devices nobody expected to run full computer software, i.e. the iPhone and iPod Touch. People had at least a couple years of smartphone experience before the iPad debuted. And many of these iPhone, iPod and iPad owner users came from the Windows world. They didn't expect them to run Windows apps.
      Microsoft has basically no smartphone market, nor tablet market and yet they're calling all these OSes Windows something. I already see confusion even in these forums, many don't know even at this time that Windows ARM tablets will not be software interchangeable with desktop/laptop nor x86 tablets.
      Buy yourself a clue, most users can't tell you anything about the hardware they use.
      GoPower