Windows 8: Analysts on UI, HTML 5 Controversy, x86 vs. ARM, More

Analysts took time to comment on "Windows 8," Microsoft's newest operating system under development, following announcements made this month at the D9 Conference and Computex. 

Much about the OS remains a mystery, but here's what we do know. The UI looks a lot like the one found in Windows Phone 7, with a tile-based start screen that dynamically updates apps that can run simultaneously. Windows 8 is optimized for touch, and users can slide their fingers along the screen's sides to scroll or activate programs, or use the traditional keyboard and mouse.

Windows 8 will run Windows 7-based apps using that same Windows 7-based UI, while also being capable of running Windows 8-based apps, which can be built based on HTML 5 and JavaScript. Windows 8 will include Internet Explorer 10, optimized for touch. Microsoft earlier this year pledged to build its next Windows OS for system-on-chips and ARM designs, representing a major new platform shift for Window 8, with new form factors to come.

In other words, Windows 8 may prove to be a radical shift. Clearly, Microsoft is reacting to a trend where mobile devices are functioning more like computers, with touch being the predominant UI, but how will Microsoft meet this future with its next-gen OS? Redmond asked industry analysts a few questions along those lines.

Why Emphasize HTML 5 and JavaScript?
Why did Microsoft emphasize JavaScript and HTML 5, and fail to mention .NET for app development when it showed off Windows 8? Opinion among analysts was mixed.

"I'm not sure, but it definitely sent the wrong message to developers if Microsoft still sees it as strategic," said Michael Silver, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, in an e-mail exchange. Silver argues in a June 8 Gartner publication that organizations should continue with their Windows 7 migration plans and not wait for Windows 8, which Gartner predicts may appear sometime in the second half of 2012.

Wes Miller, an analyst with the Directions on Microsoft consultancy, suggested that Microsoft's omission of .NET was more about crafting a buzz.

"If you look at Microsoft's historic evangelist messages, they generally are about talking about what's new and cool," Miller said in a phone interview. "If they're talking about .NET again, it's basically about just maintaining it and not real key for them. With the touch-driven apps, we don't know if you're going to be able to use .NET or how you're going to be able to use .NET -- same thing with Silverlight."

The omission of Silverlight adds to the confusion since HTML 5 is sometimes proposed as a Silverlight replacement, even for building rich Internet applications. A key Worldwide Web Consortium participant and Microsoft official, Paul Cotton, previously floated the idea in an April interview that many applications could be written entirely in HTML 5. Cotton is cochair of the HTML Working Group at the W3C and group manager for Web services standards and partners in the Microsoft Interoperability Strategy Team.

Some clues to Microsoft's thinking were provided by Mike Angiulo, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows planning hardware and PC ecosystem, at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan. Angiulo showed an HTML 5 piano application, explaining that this same app runs on both x86- and ARM-based hardware. "Developers want to be able to build and sell applications that are tailored to that Web experience and that run on those devices -- that was the reason for Windows 8," Angiulo said.

Will x86 Apps Port to ARM?
At Computex, Microsoft showed off an ARM-based PC running Microsoft Office's Word on Windows 8, which could print a document. Microsoft has ported Windows to various hardware platforms before, but it requires some work. "All applications will at least need to be recompiled," Silver said about porting Windows 7 apps to Windows 8 and ARM. "We believe there will be some platforms that won't be targeted to run legacy applications," he adds. 

"I think the great thing about that demo at Taipei was it showed that you can have one of the largest application suites in the world, running on Win32, and port it to Win32 on ARM," Miller said. "There was probably a fair amount of work going on behind the scene there, but not massive. You're going to have to deal with little things with memory management. Every time you get close to the hardware in code, that's where you are going to have little nuanced problems."

IDC analysts Al Gillen and Al Hilwa addressed this question in an opinion published on June 9, "Getting Old Apps to Windows on ARM: Not So Easy." The title says it all, but Gillen and Hilwa speculate that Microsoft and its developer partners have four options when moving to ARM. First, the code can be recompiled, but doing so requires work by ISVs, and a lack of updated apps was partly what killed Vista, they note. Second, an emulation layer can be created for applications, but this option is out because Windows head Steven Sinofsky said so at the D9 Conference. Third, binary translation can take place to port x86-based code to the ARM platform, but the IDC analysts think this approach is too complex. Finally, the analysts envision a hosted apps scenario, saying "Microsoft could create a really compelling desktop-application-in-a-cloud scenario for Windows 8 media tablets." The downside there is getting the apps to work offline.

Windows 8: Right Move or Big Gamble?
Much is at stake with Windows 8, which may address current market trends while taking the developer community for a new ride. It's both the right move and a gamble, according to Silver.

"Microsoft has to ensure that Windows will still be relevant in a world where non-PC devices are fast becoming more important than PCs and the PC is becoming relatively less important, if only by sheer number of devices," Silver explained. "To some extent, what you're seeing is similar to what Microsoft did with Windows 9x and Windows NT. They came out with NT and it took about eight years for them to get rid of 9x and managing two OS products was a real pain for them. The new 'tailored apps' and UI is the new Windows, but now they are able to provide it (at least on some devices) alongside the legacy experience with legacy apps."

Miller noted that Microsoft has to support "25 years of DOS and Windows code" and keep business customers happy, while also addressing the growing iPad consumer tablet market with its emphasis on lightweight design, long battery life and touch UI.

"[Microsoft is] in a Catch 22 where they have got to please two completely different markets," Miller said. "To me, I agree with that sentiment that Windows 8 is very large gamble. That said, I think that they've done a good job of splitting the difference, and in trying to come up with something that will continue to carry Win32 forward, as they need to and where they need to. It's almost like a compatibility layer, and yet you'll be able to run most of your apps there if that's what you have. Yet if you have a tablet or stylus machine that's touch driven, or mouse driven, you'll be able to use the new user interface as well. I think it's a good interesting decision and we'll see if it works out in their favor."

Microsoft could have tried to "dumb down the tablet" by using Windows Embedded Compact in tablets, but the company has a lot invested in the Windows client experience to do that sort of thing, Miller explained. He knows firsthand the problems that come from forked operating systems and new UIs, having worked on early Windows tablet efforts.

"I worked with the team that did tablet PC before ship for Windows XP, and of course here we're talking stylus driven," Miller said. "And that's part of the problem. Those machines were very lightweight for the era -- they were just great machines, but there were a couple of problems. They were still big. They were expensive. The bigger problem was there were not a lot of apps that really took advantage of it being a tablet. Even forget the fact that it was stylus driven and not gesture driven. If it's gesture driven, it still has the same problem. So Windows 7 supports a fair level of multitouch built into it. The problem begins that the operating system was never redesigned -- try moving into the Control Panel, for example, and using your finger. It becomes a little difficult because targets with your finger are much harder, because your finger is not a one-by-one pixel pointer vs. a cursor, which hits a five-by-five pixel spot really well."

It looks like there will be big changes to come with Windows 8, but its release date hasn't been publicized. Microsoft said it will talk more about Windows 8 at its Build event, scheduled for Sept. 13 to 16 in Anaheim, Calif.

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps has suggested in a blog post that if Microsoft can get Windows 8 to market in 2012, it will "stave off defection from OEM partners to alternative operating systems, and from consumers and enterprises tempted by Apple's platform."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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