What to Expect When You’re Expecting Windows 8

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Windows 8

By | October 24th, 2012
1 Comment on What to Expect When You’re Expecting Windows 8

So Windows 8 is about to be in your hands in just a few days. Will it be

the bundle of joy you expected?


\related stories

Windows 8 is clearly one of the most controversy-generating releases of Windows in a long time. Windows 8 is just a few days away from release, and most people are still confused about what this new version of Windows has to bring.

There is this one question many ask, to which there is still no clear answer; “I have Windows 8 what can I do with it?”

It is not that Microsoft didn’t communicate enough. Not at all! This has possibly been one of the most publicly-developed versions of Windows yet. Nearly every new feature to come in this OS has been publicly documented in great detail in their blogs, long blog posts of thousands of words for each small or large feature.

Perhaps Microsoft has created too many different versions of Windows. No, still not the case. This is a release of Windows where Microsoft has actively tried to cut down the plethora of versions of Windows that they sold before to just Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro for consumers. Versions not directly sold to consumers are Windows 8 Enterprise (only available through volume licensing) and Windows RT (only available pre-installed on tablets). Contrast this with Windows 7, which has Windows 7 Home Basic, Windows 7 Home Premium, Windows 7 Professional, and Windows 7 Ultimate, all available to consumers, and then you have Windows 7 Enterprise for volume purchase and Windows 7 Starter that cane pre-installed on some netbooks in developing countries.

Despite documenting each and every feature of Windows 8 in detail and simplifying the different editions, there is still so much confusion about what you get when you buy a Windows 8 tablet.

Microsoft has failed to communicate what Windows 8 and Windows RT brings to the consumers who will be buying the systems in a just a few days. What this leads to is that consumers get one message from Microsoft (“you can now get Windows on a tablet”) and another from the media (“Windows RT is not a full fledged version of Windows”). In the end this will just leave consumers confused, and when they do discover, eventually that their new Windows 8 tablet doesn’t do everything they expect from Windows, it will seem like Microsoft lied to them.

Windows 8 is a complicated beast despite its complexity. So let’s break it down, shall we?

Three Kinds

The first thing it is important to know is that that there are three “kinds” of Windows 8, not two. At this point you might be thinking, wait, two? Three? Didn’t we just mention four versions, Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise, and Windows RT? You see it’s already confusing. So let’s throw another version of Windows in the mix, Windows Phone 8.

We mentioned earlier how Microsoft is simplifying Windows versions, consolidating them into as few editions as required. Well, that goes as far as Windows Phone 8. For the first time, the phone version of Windows will actually be using the Windows NT kernel which currently only runs desktop versions of the OS. Windows Phone 7 and earlier used the Windows CE kernel.

This leaves us with three kinds—for lack of a better word—of Windows, first is the kind that runs on desktops and laptops (this includes Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise). The second kind is the kind that runs on tablets (Windows RT), and the third kind that runs on phones (Windows Phone 8). So you see Windows Phone 8 is just another edition of Windows 8 that you can get only by purchasing a device.

But wait, this isn’t entirely accurate. There will be tablets that run normal Windows 8 (such as the Microsoft Surface Pro) so maybe there are just two kinds of Windows? That would probably be more accurate. Windows for x86 computers which includes the desktop versions of Windows 8, and then Windows for ARM computes which includes the tablet (RT) and Phone versions.

Except, well what if you have hypothetically, an x86-based phone that runs Windows Phone 8? Intel is open to that and such a device would run Windows Phone 8 obviously. Let’s try another approach, lets judge them by capability. Windows 8, 8 Pro and 8 Enterprise can all run both “Metro” and desktop applications. Windows RT and only run “Metro” applications. And Windows Phone 8 can… only run Metro applications.

Now we’re confused. We can see why a lot of other people are too.

Not Quite Windows Phone

When you try placing the new Windows RT among the different Windows editions, it definitely comes between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 in terms of capability.

Yet, is Windows RT more capable than Windows Phone 8?

When it comes to Metro apps, Windows RT doesn’t have much more to offer than Windows Phone 8. What Windows RT does offer is the Windows desktop experience, which means the following:

  • The Windows desktop — you can set a wallpaper, we’ve heard that’s nice, and icons!
  • Windows explorer — which useless for touch, and already has a metro-based alternative
  • The process explorer — which will pretty much only show windows services, which you cant close, Metro apps, since those are all that will run, and Office 2013, finally something.
  • Desktop version of IE — again a Metro alternative exists, and uses the same engine, it even supports Flash
  • Office 2013 — the first real advantage

In a recent Reddit AMA, Microsoft representatives divulged that Windows RT will take 12GB of space. For a tablet OS that is quite a lot. Windows Phone 7 takes under 500MB—this is going by the bare-bones emulator image which is 300MB—and quite possibly Windows Phone 8 will be around the same.

So as a tablet user you are giving up as much as 10 times the hard drive space for what? A desktop that you don’t need—not because it isn’t useful, but because it has been restricted into uselessness—a alternative browser that isn’t really an alternative, a file manager that’s redundant, and a power process manager that you can’t use.

There are two good things we can say about the Windows RT. First is that device support should be brilliant, most external devices should be supported via USB since Windows includes all the drives, and second you get and office suite for free.

Unfortunately both these are also true of any Linux distro that takes up a tenth of that. In the end Windows RT isn’t important because of its triumphs, since it has none compared to Windows 8, but because of its disappointments.

Microsoft has been trying to convince desktop users for months that Metro will be as productive as the desktop, and now with Windows RT they are making a point about how productive it is because it has a proper desktop-based Office suite. Talk about inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistency Microsoft themselves haven’t been able to make an office suite that can work perfectly in the Metro environment in the years they have known about Metro, while they are still trying to push it to other developers. For them the only option is to go Metro-only or desktop-only.

Another failure of Metro is that it is not feasible to write a pure-Metro browser. So much so that Microsoft had to create a special exception for browsers, such they they can be installed from outside the store, and can be hybrid desktop-Metro applications. They had to create this crude inconsistency just to get around Metro’s limitations.

Another failure of Metro is that it isn’t Metro any more, and is instead replaced by a generic “Modern UI” which will make no sense in a few years, and “Windows 8-style UI” which will make no sense Windows 9 comes out. Microsoft should have bought out Metro AG if they had to keep that name (plus who doesn’t love the idea of Microsoft selling apples?).

Imagine how useful such a hybrid approach could be for other classes of applications. Office suites especially. Microsoft themselves have failed to deliver a Metro office suite, or a pure Metro based browser. So on x86 computers they give users the ability to install other browsers and other office suited. Yet on ARM they take away this ability. Users can’t just install the browser they want, and no other office suite will be able to offer a desktop-based UI for Windows RT users. Microsoft has sectioned off a range of UIs that only its applications have access to on ARM computers.

This is exactly what got them into trouble before, but it’s all OK this time, they are not a monopoly, they are barely making a dent.

What would be brilliant is if the community behind the open source LibreOffice or Calligra Office projects managed to deliver a Metro-based office suite before Microsoft managed it. Considering the progress these communities have made—on tablets Calligra especially—I do not think it is beyond them.

The Windows Experience

The problem here is that despite fewer editions of Windows, there is just no consistency. Things don’t flow the way they do up the hierarchy of Windows versions. Despite all this promotion of Windows 8, and Windows on ARM, what Microsoft is giving users is what they call Windows RT. Well no one has heard of that yet. It hasn’t been promoted or explained, its just been thrust out there as if it has been a part of the Windows family for ever.

To a degree it makes sense, Apple promotes its iPhone to consumers, not iOS, and now Microsoft has promoting Surface, but not Windows RT. It’s just the OS after all.

Things aren’t the same though, and perhaps there would be similar confusions if Apple were calling the OS on the first iPhone Mac OSX RT. Microsoft not only calls it Windows, but the “Windows” name is also a major selling point. Not because Windows gives people warm fuzzy feelings, but because of what it means, the ability to run Windows applications.

To any casual user who doesn’t spend their life online, reading long blog posts by Microsoft—like we do—the expectation from a Windows computer, a Windows tablet is that they will get everything that Windows entails, and that means running their good old desktop applications.

When Microsoft announced that they would bring Windows to ARM, there was always this looming doubt, how consumers would handle it, how will they see it? After all, something like the architecture of the system isn’t something that should concern the end user. Even the x86 to x86-64 transition has taken so long, and in the end that isn’t something a lot of users care about. Adding ARM to the mix meant that Windows users would have to be aware, or would have to be made aware that their system was a unique little snowflake and all that software that they were used to running on desktops would just not run.

At that point the feeling was that Microsoft would obviously make it possible to write desktop apps for ARM, and software developers would have to put up an ARM download link in addition to x86 and x86-64.

Microsoft then announced that the ARM version would be Metro only. So no download links, no desktop, and installation possible only via the store.

And you know what? That might still be OK when Apple does it, they have a tablet that only runs applications from their store. But that might not work for Microsoft?

Many have tried to compete with Apple when it comes to tablets, and none have been as successful. Where Microsoft has the edge is the large collection of software that has been written for Windows. Yet it is eager to abandon all that on their tablets, Microsoft threw away its trump card.

On Windows 8 for desktops Microsoft is trying to give people the tablet experience, on tablets they tout the desktop experience. Neither does the other’s job well, but neither is willing to just focus.

What to Expect when you’re Expecting Windows 8

We have been pretty gloomy about Windows 8, but to be honest, it has an impressive array of new features that have just been forgotten amidst all the controversy. Still the question we began this article with remains unanswered. The fact is that the answer depends on the wrong things.

Whether you can run desktop apps or not doesn’t depend on the capabilities of the device, rather it depends on the architecture of the device, whether it is ARM or x86. This decision is entirely arbitrary and has more to do with Microsoft’s monopoly on x86 and previous court cases regarding that, rather than limitations of the architecture.

Microsoft themselves are offering both Microsoft Surface and Microsoft Surface Pro. Microsoft Surface is x86-based, runs Windows RT, and can’t run regular Windows apps, while Surface Pro runs Windows 8 Pro and should be able to run anything a Windows 8 desktop can.

If you have a Windows computer, what you need to know is, does it run on an ARM processor? Not whether it is a desktop, laptop, netbook, or tablet—although ARM-based desktops and laptops seems unlikely in the near future—but whether it is ARM-based or x86 based, whether it run Windows RT or Windows 8. Probably the manufacturer will highlight this. If you have Windows RT, though luck, you can’t run desktop applications. But you did just get Office 2013 for free.

Otherwise what you have in front of you is a spiced up Windows 7 with a few new tricks up its sleeve, a missing start menu and a whole new UI for a whole new kind of application. Give it a go, it’ll probably win you over.

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Kshitij Sobti
Inserted into Kshitij's motivation banks is a particularly strong desire for justice. It's sad then, that he wastes his skills gaming, watching TV, and for the mundane task of writing prose. He tweets