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The Logic of Microsoft's New Windows Names
Communications Manager, explains on the Windows Team blog. Windows 8 and 8 Pro – los Ochos – are the predictable continuation of Windows 7. That is, they are designed to sit on conventional PCs – desktops and notebooks with Intel x86 processors. So, in effect, we are back to the simple days of Windows XP: the unmodified version is for basic home users, and the Pro version unlocks functionality for businesses and prosumers including virtualization, encryption and remote desktops. They are available as upgrades to their Win7 equivalents, and will be able to run Windows 7 software using the “desktop” mode.
Windows RT is where things get a little more complicated. This is the version of Windows designed for ARM chips – so, for smaller, low-powered tablets and phones, embedded devices and other form factors where power gives way to battery life and sleekness. This has variously been called Windows ARM, Windows on ARM, Windows Metro, WoA, Windows Phone and Tablet and (my suggestion) WARM. So, why RT? Will it not lead to endless Abbott and Costello routines (“Do you have Windows RT? Yes, but stop calling me Artie”)?
Mobility at last
The last of these problems at least should be limited: Windows RT, like Android or iOS, is not expected to be sold separately from a device, and has no upgrade path from Windows 7, since it will not load onto anything that ran Windows 7. More importantly, it will also not run Windows 7 applications – which, presumably, is why a variation on Windows 8 was ruled out as a name. Windows Phone and Tablet limits the range of devices, and would cause yet further confusion when Windows 8 tablets based on Intel’s new mobile Atom chips appear.
Windows on ARM processors – an absence that doomed so many Windows-based tablets, locking them into bulky form factors or brief battery lives, clunky interfaces and lengthy startup times – is a new front entirely, and would seem to be taking over the two-letter protocol for Windows editions (ME, NT, XP etc). The “RT” presumably references Windows Runtime, the new programming model for applications in the Metro design language. Applications built using WinRT APIs can be distributed through the Windows Store for use on ARM and x86 devices.
Steven Sinofsky of the Windows engineering team went into more detail about the implementation of Windows not-8 on ARM devices in a blog post here. In essence, it says roughly what one would expect – that Windows RT will look and behave like Windows 8, and will run apps designed to work within the Metro design language, rather than Windows 8′s 7-friendly desktop mode. Confusingly, it seems Windows RT will also have its own “desktop” mode, which will not run Windows 7 applications, and is presumably primarily for use with the customized version of Microsoft Office shipping with Windows RT.
Good to know that an old friend is getting a new look.
Delivering the goods
Microsoft have been working with Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas instruments to ensure that PC makers will be ready to ship Windows RT devices alongside their Windows 8 PCs.
HP in particular has committed to reentering the tablet market seriously with Windows, having abandoned their TouchPad experiment last year. The Windows 8 consumer preview is already available here. We will have to wait for RT to appear on devices, which are rumored to be slated for an October launch, although some leaks point to early 2013. Nokia, shaping up to report another quarterly loss on Thursday, will no doubt also be eager to get the latest and greatest phone product into the market.
I expect that “RT” will not feature heavily in the advertising of either – instead we will see the first significant, concerted push of ecosystem-sharing Windows (8) PCs and mobile devices, along with other Windows machines, notably the Xbox, which share a common design language. How Windows devices might perform in the tablet market is an unknown quantity – Apple have so far carried all before them, resisting incursions from Android and effortlessly repusling the opening sallies from HP and RIM.
Microsoft cannot make its hardware partners into Jony Ives overnight, but a well-designed interface will go a long way, as will relentless generation of high-quality apps and Xbox 360 integration – and a potential selling point for the growing gamer market.
If Microsoft gets this right, we could see a genuine unity between several everyday computing devices. If it does not, expect Windows 8.5 Home Premium by early 2013.