Yesterday Microsoft published a details piece over on the Building Windows 8 blog which looked at how the company took the x86 Windows that we know, and re-imagined it for the ARM architecture. Then, early this morning I got the opportunity to take a look at a pre-release version of the Windows on ARM (WOA) code running on a real machine, and I'm now more convinced than I've ever been that Microsoft has got it right.
Let's start with the official blog post. This long and detailed post (we expect no less from the Building Windows 8 blog team), we get a lot of answers to questions that have been floating around for weeks. Specifically:
'Out of the box' experience will look and feel just like Windows 8 on x86/x64 hardware.
The Windows desktop will still be available on WOA devices.
Tools such as the Windows File Explorer and Internet Explorer will be available.
PC makers will ship WOA devices at the same time as Windows 8 PCs ship.
WOA will include Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
WOA will not support any type of virtualization or emulation approach, and will not enable existing x86/64 applications to be ported or run because of the adverse effect this would have on battery life.
Microsoft is working to deliver WOA PCs that will combine three features: Thin and light in industrial design, long battery life, and integrated quality.
WOA PCs will be clearly labeled and branded so as to avoid customer confusion with Windows 8 on x86/64.
WOA will not be available as a software-only distribution.
A WOA PC/device will feel more like a consumer electronics device rather than a traditional PC.
This is all awesome stuff. But it gets better. This morning I got the chance to take a peek at WOA running on a device. It wasn't hands-on exactly, and I wasn't allowed to take screenshots or photos, but what I was shown was interesting. The OS is looking good, and there's been a lot of changes since the developer preview. The touch UI has seen a lot of improvements and refinements.
I can also confirm that Microsoft Office 15 apps exist. They're NOT like the desktop Office applications that you're currently using, but more like hybrid apps. From what I saw (taking into account that this is unfinished code), the ARM versions of Office seem to offer all the features of their desktop counterparts. They're highly customized for touch, but this I've been told won't result in compromises. There won't be a gulf between Office on WOA devices and x86/x64 PCs like there is say between iWork applications on a Mac, and their equivalent on iOS devices.
And this is why Apple should be worried. So far I've been concerned that WOA would offer a cut-down, Fisher Price soft of Windows experience. It would look at a bit like duck, quack something like a duck, but actually be more of a platypus than a duck, and that ultimately this would be its undoing. But now I realize that I was wrong. WOA looks like Windows, quacks like Windows, and is Windows. Microsoft has pulled off what it promised, and has taken its desktop OS and put it across multiple platforms and onto various screen sizes. This changes how we look at tablets.
Apple has maintained a gulf between the Mac OS and iOS on a number of fronts. While we're seeing some unification (in many ways with the migration of iOS features into the Mac OS), you can't argue that there's still a big chasm between the two platforms. While ARM inevitably introduces a difference between it and x86/x64 simply because of the lack of legacy support, it's a much smaller gap, both in terms of usability and functionality. While I think that the iPad 3 and iOS 5.1 will represent evolutionary change rather than a revolution, if WOA devices take off (still a big if in my opinion), The iPad 4 and iOS 6.x may have to spice things up a few more notches to counter the Windows effect.
I'm still concerned about the heavy Metro UI on the desktop, and still hope that there will be a way for users to disable this on non-touch devices, and I'm sort of surprised by Microsoft's decision to kill the Start button, but as far as that Metro UI is concerned, Microsoft has created a consistent experience across X86/x64 and ARM.
It's fair to say that I'm impressed. Very impressed.