Windows 8: Microsoft's Swiss Army knife vision

With Windows 8, the software giant is presenting a counter-argument to Apple's Mac and iPad strategy, suggesting that customers will want one operating system to handle all their computing needs.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
4 min read

ANAHEIM, Calif.--Microsoft, in revealing details of its upcoming Windows 8 operating system this week at its Build developer conference here, has presented its vision for computing in a tablet era that's starkly different from the one offered by rival Apple.

Microsoft Windows president Stephen Sinofsky introduces a test version of a touch-enabled Windows 8. Microsoft

Apple believes that consumers will want discreet devices that are designed to take on specific tasks. That's why its computers run a beefy operating system designed to handle heavy-duty computer processing required, for example, by computer-assisted design applications, and its iPads run a much lighter-weight operating system that's fine for surfing the Web or reading a digital book.

That's not the vision Microsoft's pursuing. The software giant believes consumers will want a meaty operating system that can run on a variety of devices--everything from a slim tablet up to water-cooled high-end gaming system. Not surprisingly, that operating system is Windows.

"Their approach is to take the PC OS and bring it to the tablet which is opposite of what Apple is doing," said Jason Maynard, an analyst with Wells Fargo Securities. "Sometimes when you have a hammer, everything looks like nail."

Maynard doesn't think that Microsoft's approach is without merit. The company is simply playing to its strengths. After all, Windows runs more than 1 billion PCs worldwide. And when Windows 8 arrives, most likely late next year, it will ship on as many as 400 million PCs, according to some analyst estimates. At the Build conference, Microsoft harped on the potential market to developers in hopes of convincing them to create new applications for Windows 8.

"The opportunity for building these applications is Windows. These applications will run on all new Windows 8 PCs, desktop, laptop, Windows tablets, small, big screens, all-in-ones--every Windows PC, whether it's a new PC or an upgrade from Windows 7," Windows President Steven Sinofsky told the 5,000 developers gathered for his keynote address at the conference on Tuesday. "That could be 400 million people when this product launches. That's a market opportunity for all of you."

The challenge, though, will be convincing developers to create slick applications that take advantage of the touch-enabled Metro interface of Windows 8. And it's likely that they'll only do that if they believe hardware makers will come up with compelling designs that encourage users to use the new operating system as a tablet and not just the PCs that Windows has traditionally run.

That's why Microsoft has been working with hardware makers to insure that Windows 8 can run on ARM chips. The ARM system-on-a-chip architecture means that devices themselves can be thinner and lighter. That should open the door to some slim and attractive tablets running the operating system. But those ARM chips won't be able to run some legacy Windows applications unless programmers go through the bother of porting those applications.

That means that ARM tablets running Windows 8 won't have complete backward-compatible functionality. And it removes some of the advantage that running Windows brings to a tablet.

Those legacy applications will be able to run on Windows 8 computers using the x86 architecture with chips from Intel and AMD. But that architecture requires more hardware components, meaning the devices themselves may wind up being thicker and heavier. That's fine for slipping into a dock to handle traditional workplace computing tasks such as crafting a presentation. But those bulkier devices aren't particularly comfortable to sit back and read a book on.

To be fair, it's still early. Microsoft and its partners have at least a year to work out the kinks before Windows 8 and the variety of devices on which it will ship debut. And they recognize the challenges.

Qualcomm is one of the key Microsoft partners, working to optimize its ARM-based Snapdragon chip for Windows 8. It's also working hard to help developers figure out how to port legacy applications to the new platform, though it realizes it can't tackle every one.

"Our focus is going to be on the top applications that address the top 90 percent or so of users," said Steve Horton, director of software in the chipset division at Qualcomm. "But if you're using Quicken 99, you may be stuck."

Similarly, AMD is pushing hard to help its partners create ever thinner devices that can handle the broadest swath of applications.

"There is definitely the opportunity for thinner, lighter devices" running x86 chips, said Gabe Gravning, senior manager for client product marketing at AMD. "The market is moving in that direction."

That's Microsoft's big bet with Windows 8. Microsoft sees Windows as the Swiss Army knife that can meet everyone's computing needs. It's got to hope that the prevailing market wisdom of Apple, providing specific devices running different operating systems tailored for discrete purposes, will prove flawed.