An Intel executive suggested during a company investor meeting May 18 that Microsoft will manufacture different versions of its upcoming "Windows 8" tailored for Intel and ARM-based devices. That echoes statements made by Microsoft executives at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Bloomberg reports that Renee James, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Software and Services Group, told those assembled at the meeting that the next version of Windows for Intel chips will run programs designed for previous versions of the operating system, while the ARM-based versions will not. Intel will apparently offer its own Windows-supporting architecture for mobile devices such as tablets.
Rumors suggest that Microsoft will release Windows 8-as it's been termed, at least for brevity's sake, by the media and analysts-sometime in 2012. In April, bloggers Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott dissected various features of what they called an early operating-system build on Rivera's Within Windows blog. According to those postings, the next version of Windows could incorporate an Office-style ribbon interface into Windows Explorer, complete with tools for viewing libraries and manipulating images. The bloggers also included a screenshot of an early device-unlock window, done in the "Metro" design style already present in Windows Phone.
Whether those elements eventually find their way into Windows 8 remains to be seen. What is confirmable, though, is that it will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. That would give Microsoft the ability to port Windows 8 onto tablets and other mobile form factors powered by ARM offerings. And that, in turn, would allow Microsoft to finally establish a beachhead in a tablet market currently dominated by Apple's iPad and the growing family of Google Android devices.
Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division, suggested at CES 2011 that "under the hood there are a ton of differences that need to be worked through" with regard to SoC-supported Windows. Nonetheless, he added, "Windows has proven remarkably flexible at this under-the-hood sort of stuff."
If an ARM-based Windows 8 can't run legacy applications, that could potentially hobble adoption among those businesses and consumers-and ultimately benefit Intel, which has a long history of supporting Windows on a variety of devices. But as a high-ranking Intel executive, James also has a vested interest in promoting her company's offerings over those of its rival.
Windows 7 managed to sidestep some "last ditch" compatibility issues with certain Windows XP applications via Windows XP mode, which ran those applications within a virtual environment; the question is whether a similar solution could solve compatibility issues with the next version of Windows, despite James' insistence to the contrary.
Whatever the final capabilities of the next Windows, though, the emphasis on both ARM and Intel for its hardware backbone suggests that Microsoft is making a very big play-not only to hold its ground in traditional PCs, but also to take its own piece of the burgeoning tablet market.