The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

Summary: The transition from traditional Windows desktops to the Post-PC world, the ARM architecture and the Metro user interface is inevitable. But it won't a be quick one.

TOPICS: Processors, Hardware

My two ZDNet colleagues, David Gewirtz and Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols have gotten themselves into a bit of a lover's quarrel. SJVN says that Windows 8 will be dead on arrival, and yet Gewirtz says that Windows 8 will matter for real work, as will Windows 9.

Seriously guys, get a room.

Both of these men have some interesting viewpoints to offer. Neither of them are correct, though -- the real answer lies somewhere in between.

Back in September, shortly after the completion of Microsoft's BUILD conference, I did some preliminary analysis of the huge pile of information that Redmond dumped on us that week. The conclusion that I came to was that Microsoft had handed down the death sentence for the Personal Computer as we know it today.

The crux of my argument at the time was that the new WinRT API's clearly represent the next phase in Windows' evolution and that there was no room on the ARM platform for porting legacy Win32 applications.

While Microsoft did not definitively say that at the time, I had inferred this simply because I knew what a difficult task it would be to move all of that legacy code over to the new ARM architecture.

Even if Microsoft had ported all the supporting libraries and APIs over, it would be a nightmare to try to support every developer to move their spaghetti Windows code over to the new platform.

No, a clean break was absolutely required.

If you read the Talkbacks in that September 2011 article I was derided by many of our readers for making such a bold statement, that none of the code would be portable with a simple re-compile.

I can sum up the bulk of their responses fairly neatly. "But look! There's a traditional Windows desktop on the ARM version! There's a video that proves it! Microsoft demonstrated Office on ARM! You're an idiot!"

But I knew that I was right.

Speculation continued on for months as to whether or not the "Blue" APIs would be avaliable on the traditional, non-Metro "Desktop" on the ARM version of Windows. But last week, Microsoft Windows group lead Steven Sinofsky put all of those arguments to rest in an 8,000 word manifesto which confirmed exactly what I had believed and knew all along. Here's the key takeaway:

Developers wishing to target WOA do so by writing applications for the WinRT (Windows APIs for building Metro style apps) using the new Visual Studio 11 tools in a variety of languages, including C#/VB/XAML and Jscript/ HTML5. Native code targeting WinRT is also supported using C and C++, which can be targeted across architectures and distributed through the Windows Store. WOA does not support running, emulating, or porting existing x86/64 desktop apps. Code that uses only system or OS services from WinRT can be used within an app and distributed through the Windows Store for both WOA and x86/64. Consumers obtain all software, including device drivers, through the Windows Store and Microsoft Update or Windows Update.

So, just in case you didn't understand that, if you are a developer and have a complex Win32 application, you are going to have to completely re-write it in the WinRT APIs if you want to target it to run natively on an ARM device. The "Desktop" environment exists in Windows 8 on ARM, but it is strictly reserved for Microsoft's use only, which includes their port of Office. NO WIN32 FOR YOU!

Nobody likes anyone who says "I told you so." Well, too bad. I told you so.

So what does this mean for the future success of Windows 8 and the Microsoft technology platform as a whole?

Well, the answer is not so cut and dry. In one sense, Windows 8 will be a failure. But in another, it will be a huge success.

From the perspective of the software developer who has written Win32 apps that run on Windows 7 today, it means that continuing work on Win32 and improving those products probably doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense.

At best, for the software developer, Win32 apps become a maintenance business. All efforts are now going to be focused on writing applications that are written in the WinRT APIs, so that they can run on the Metro interface across the two architectures.

From the perspective of the consumer and enterprise, an upgrade to Windows 8 in late 2012 or early 2013 means getting all new Windows software from the new Microsoft Windows Store (the "App Store") if they want to take advantage of the new Metro features on x86 PCs.

The likely outcome is that Windows 7 is going to remain the most popular version of desktop Windows until a significant number of applications are ported over to the new Metro/WinRT environment. So we can expect both consumer and corporate adoption of Windows 8 at least on the desktop to be slow. Very slow.

The bottom line is that there's very little incentive to move to Windows 8 at all if you're just going to be running the same Win32 apps you have today.

After all, many large enterprise customers only just completed their Windows 7 rollouts or are still in the process of doing them. They're not going to undertake another migration in 2013. Or 2014 or even 2015 for that matter.

Sure, they'll refresh the hardware if necessary, but Windows 7 is going to be king for a very long time.

Now, from the server perspective, that's an entirely different ball of wax. As I said in an earlier piece, I think Windows 8 Server is going to be a very big deal for corporations, because the value proposition is extremely strong.

Windows 8 Server is going to be a major upgrade for any organization looking to take advantage of server and desktop virtualization technology (VDI) and for building private cloud infrastructure.

Desktop Windows on the x86 platform is going to be around for a long time -- but in the form of consumers and enterprise sticking with their Windows 7 systems and Win32 apps until the value proposition of moving to WinRT-based apps is high enough to justify the upgrade.

That kind of transition could take 7 to 10 years, the very same type of long, drawn out upgrade cycle we saw from users moving from XP to Windows 7. So SJVN is correct that Windows 8 on x86 may not get a ton of traction.

But what about Windows 8 on tablets? Or on ARM-based thin-clients?

Well, that's where things get a lot more interesting.

We now know that Windows on ARM (WOA) is going to include a version of Microsoft Office pre-loaded. So while enterprise take-up on the desktop, x86 version of Windows 8 could indeed turn out to be slow, this may be the exact kind of thing the doctor ordered for Windows to gain traction in the enterprise as the tablet OS for "Getting Real Work Done" as Gewirtz has so eloquently put it.

And ARM-based desktops, which will essentially be maintenance-free appliances like the iPad, when paired with the enhanced RemoteFX/Remote Desktop Services capabilities of Windows Server 8, will significantly lower total cost of ownership of the desktop environment by allowing these devices to run legacy Win32 applications via VDI.

It may sound awfully Science-fictioney, but I've had this technology demonstrated to me by Microsoft and the user experience of running remote Win32 apps on the server looks amazingly seamless and there's no compromise for the end-user whatsoever. And I would expect the same of server-side WinRT applications as well, once the Windows ecosystem has moved to that programmatic model.

But the most important thing is that the balance of the ongoing maintenance burden for these ARM-based PCs will be transferred from the enterprise support staff to Microsoft and the OEMs, which is a big deal.

To quote Sinofsky's Windows on ARM manifesto again:

Partners will provide WOA PCs as integrated, end-to-end products that include hardware, firmware, and Windows on ARM software. Windows on ARM software will not be sold or distributed independent of a new WOA PC, just as you would expect from a consumer electronics device that relies on unique and integrated pairings of hardware and software. Over the useful lifetime of the PC, the provided software will be serviced and improved.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the day when enterprises can finally get the desktop support monkey off their back and concentrate on managing their shared private cloud infrastructure instead and leveraging as much server and virtualization technology as possible.

Will the transition to Windows 8 desktops be a quick and painless transition, or will it be a long kiss goodbye from Windows 7? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Processors, Hardware


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

    7 to 10 years? By that time I'd bet on people abandoning Windows and Microsoft altogether, after all if you're not using legacy software that's pinned to one OS you might aswell switch to something else that's cheaper and more secure
    • The same ZD crowd were cheering for ChromeOS a while ago

      We were told ChromeOS was gonna be a post-desktop solution, this, that, then some. <br><br>WHAT NOW? Meanwhile these ZD guys act if they had never heard about Chrome0S before.
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

        Ram U
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows


        It is different, when Microsoft themselves say this is the way to go and let's forget Windows.
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

        Chrome OS is headed more towards the future than Windows without doubt. You may want to also keep an eye on Ubuntu's Tablet and XAMPP as a compass. Anyone that follows Microsoft does so at their own peril.
      • Perlow's argument rests on an assumption that Intel will die

        @ LBiege<br><br>Perlow seems to assume that Intel will just roll over and die. It's an extremely strong assumption, but essentially a requirement for his argument to work. In fact, however, the power characteristics of Intel CPUs are steadily improving. We've already seen commitments to use Intel's Medfield architecture in Android-based mobile phones. If anything, Arm could be another flash in the pan, like the 68k and Mips were in the 80s and early 90s, before Intel caught up and buried them.<br><br>If Intel lives, then the restrictions Microsoft is imposing on WOA don't amount to anything. Windows 8 on Intel still supports everything that Windows 7 supports, plus Metro-style apps targeted at WOA. Judging by the developer preview, Windows 8 on Intel will also offer even better performance than Windows 7.<br><br>Win32 will almost certainly go into maintenance mode, and will be phased out at some point, but probably not until Windows 9 at the earliest. To replace Win32, Microsoft needs a keyboard/mouse-centric replacement based on WinRT. That won't be in Windows 8, but I'd bet a decent sum of money that it's what Microsoft has in mind for Windows 9. That will also be around the time businesses will start upgrading from Windows 7.<br><br>Perlow's logic on why Microsoft is restricting WOA is faulty too. The difficulty isn't moving apps from x86 to Arm. Any competent developer would realise that most apps don't use assembly code, and can easily be ported to Arm. The reason Microsoft chose to exclude legacy code was to retain control of the power characteristics and user experience -- especially UI responsiveness -- on Arm tablets.<br><br>Microsoft's reasons for restricting WOA don't apply to Intel PCs, which will still constitute the vast majority of Windows sales. Moreover, Microsoft even seems to be willing to allow legacy code on Intel tablets. This suggests that Intel tablets will be targeted, at least initially, at power users and businesses, whilst Arm tablets will provide a more restricted, but more consistent, user experience to consumers. In the Windows 9 time frame, Intel tablets without Win32 support could be on the cards too, but non-tablets will almost certainly continue to support it even in Windows 9 and beyond.
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows


    • LOL!

      You keep dreaming, and ZDNet will keep posting your replies. ;)
      William Farrel
    • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

      @explodingwalrus - - that is the case here.. useful legacy programs that meet all needs, too important to quit using, too costly to "upgrade" because M$ changed the o/s. I'm guessing there will always be an emulation or backwards compatibility paradigm out there but it will be small.
    • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows


      I am so over Post-PC, a term so incredibly wrong it's amazing you'd repeat it.

      Any chance we can get to a post-blogging world?
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

        @tonymcs@... We already have one. You post on a blogg and you have a post-blogging world! ;)
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows


        I am so over Net-speak e.g. "I could care less about Net-speak"

        What does that even mean? Literally, it seems to mean that you have no opinion about Net-speak, but I don't think that's what people intend to convey.

        Ah well, the illiterati must have their way; it would be expecting too much for them to think about what they are saying.
    • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

      @explodingwalrus we are listening this from centuries that MS is Dead. but reality is thay are becoming more and more strong facing competition and whether you like it or not, but competition is following MS as far as end user is concerned. They all are making enviroment "Windows like" not Mac like or anything else.So, stop dreaming :)
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

        @rajasthanleo Many folks have been waiting a long time for Microsoft's Kodak moment. Hopefully betraying the entire mobile and PC marketplaces with Nokia will finally get it done.
      • Interesting...

        The 'Windows Store'? Sounds a lot like the App Store, as the author pointed out. The whole strategy of obtaining all software through there is an Apple innovation. Few people who make it their business to know everything in the Windows/MS world seems to spend time looking at what the major competitors are doing. I can see Apple turning their desktop into a more iOS like environment - which they have announced for the last three years. It's not until MS wakes up and does the same that everyone takes notice of these things and starts a blogstorm about the Next Big Thing. I don't see companies making their environment more "Windows like"; I see them making it more "Apple like". Apple switched major processor platforms 6 years ago with no drama. At the time everyone screamed. It's six years later and now everyone is asking what the big deal was about. I'm sure Microsoft can do the same.

        The two big personal differences that I experience between the two platforms is the way in which the two companies approach user interface and the way they approach APIs.
        Apple have a better UI. Hands down. No contest. I don't mean bells and whistles. I don't mean graphical gadgets, or fancy swirling info boxes. I mean how it approaches settings, security, accounts, and dialogs. you know - the things you have to deal with all the time. There is a subtle consistency that makes working with an Apple OS easier.

        I just laid my hands on my first Windows 7 PC about a week ago. In the first 10 minutes I was asked several security questions. Had about 25 popups from various programs about updates, viruses, spam ware, adware, legitimate programs asking permission to talk to the internet, etc., etc. I spent an hour doing updates, checking different software, being prompted constantly for different things. It's a week later and I'm still finding things I need to do for maintenance on this new laptop.

        When I bought a new Apple laptop, I turned it on. It asked me my name and if I had a .Mac account. Found my wifi, did one software update. Boom done. Less than 10 minutes. About once every three or four weeks there MAY be a little update. It almost NEVER asks me to reboot after the update unless it's a major OS update. None of the updates has ever failed to install. Ever.
        I abandoned Windows XP in 2005 when I found out my just-built 5000$ gaming PC wasn't Vista compliant - even though I had used top of the line components - apparently Vista wanted me to use more generic and common low-end parts. I went to Apple and struggled for months until I figured out the mentality of it. (I was a MS certified Server consultant for 15 years before that, so the Apple thing really didn't click with me for a long time). What I find now is that I spend almost no time maintaining my Apple computers - and lots of time keeping my Windows computers happy.
        Now I have to carry this second PC around for work, and I'm back to the same maintenance routine that aggravated me years ago - and yet had never questioned, because that's just what you do with a computer - isn't it?
        To get back to the point, I think MS going the same route as Apple is a good thing for everyone. If it can reduce the maintenance time people spend on keeping their software running properly, then all the power to them.
        As the author has pointed out - let businesses get away from running IT, and concentrate on running their business.

        It shouldn't be as hard as it is now.
    • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

      I've threatened to do it for years, but now is the time. When Win32 is no longer offered by Microsloth, I am finally going to convert all of my PCs to Ubuntu. I have one running it now so I can learn it and find all the good little secrets it took so long to suss out about MS products. I'm sick of having to find ways to work around limitations in my OS anyway. Linux is the answer and it will be running on x86 for years to come.
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows


        Move it now then? What are you waiting for? Go. Go now. Do it. What? Wait for Microsoft to stop offering Win32? But I though you are sick of it already?
      • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows

        @gpmorris If linux is the answer, what was the question?
        Im sick of the constant useless updates that never give a reason why they are done and the inability to find out what "they" did wrong this time....or even what sort of spyware the yincorperate into windows. That wil lbe the greatest world scandal if it ever comes out...
    • RE: The long kiss goodbye for x86 desktop Windows


      Nahh, they won't abandon the PC, Microsoft will Just ADD the tablets and other devices. ^ This does not mean The End of the PC.

      I guess Perlow is a "Glass Half Empty" kind of guy.
    • as long as it's a 32 bit processor


      sparkle farkle