Will Windows 8 ARM devices offer a limited desktop interface?

The latest scuttlebutt from the Verge suggests that tablets and other ARM-based devices running Windows 8 may move beyond the Metro UI to provide some type of desktop interface.

Lance Whitney
Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
3 min read

Microsoft has been coy about certain details on Windows 8 ARM devices. But a new rumor suggests that some type of desktop interface may join the new Metro UI on such devices.

The folks in Redmond could be eyeing a limited or restricted desktop for Windows 8 ARM tablets and other devices, and one that will support only specific apps. At least, that's the scuttlebut from the Verge's Tom Warren, who wrote yesterday "that's exactly what we are hearing the software giant plans to do."

The move to Windows 8 initially stirred up confusion over exactly what we would see on different devices.

The version designed for PCs and other x86-based devices will offer the new Metro UI and the standard desktop, giving users an option of running applications in either environment. Tablets and other mobile devices powered by ARM chips will offer just the Metro UI, according to Microsoft.

Windows president Steven Sinofsky initially broke the news last year that ARM will support only Metro apps.

"We've been very clear since the very first CES demos and forward that the ARM product won't run any X86 applications," Sinofsky said at the time, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman. "We've done a bunch of work to enable that--enable a great experience there, particularly around devices and device drivers. We built a great deal of what we call class drivers, with the ability to run all sorts of printers and peripherals out of the box with the ARM version."

One key reason cited for not supporting x86 desktop apps on ARM devices is battery life. Metro apps are able to suspend themselves, helping to reduce battery power on a tablet or other mobile device. Legacy desktop applications don't have that capability.

"If we allow the world of X86 application support like that, or based on what we call desktop apps...then there are real challenges in some of the value proposition for system on a chip, you know, will battery life be as good, for example?" Sinofsky questioned. "Well, those applications aren't written to be really great in the face of limited battery constraints, which is a value proposition of the Metro style apps."

However, Sinofsky did demo some type of desktop mode on an ARM device at last year's Microsoft Build conference. And a similar demo was given at the company's keynote as CES last Monday. So it still leaves open the question of what if any support ARM devices could and will lend toward desktop apps.

If the Verge's sources are correct, Microsoft may be aiming for a compromise. Desktop apps running on an ARM device would require a trusted certificate to gain permission, and for now, Microsoft is said to be looking at including only Office and Internet Explorer in the mix.

Of course, this is all just a rumor for now. But if Microsoft did find a way to support specific desktop apps on Windows 8 ARM devices, the move would certainly benefit some of its core customers, both now and down the road.

An ARM processor can drive more than just tablets. The chip has been used in Netbooks and is expected to surface in more lower-cost laptops. We could even see ARM chips start to pop up in more powerful devices, including higher-performance laptops.

Tablet owners may be okay with just Metro apps. But those using ARM-powered laptops as their core computers will likely want to run certain legacy applications.

It's still a balancing act for Microsoft as it wants to wean users off the old-fashioned desktop toward the "more modern" Metro UI. The company doesn't want to encourage a reliance on desktop apps, yet it may not want to leave tablet users totally in the cold.

So if the rumors are true, Microsoft would certainly want to limit the supported apps through certificates or other restrictions to keep such a desktop from becoming an open and uncontrolled environment.

Updated 1:45 p.m. PT with comments from Steven Sinofsky forwarded by a Microsoft spokeswoman.