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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some Windows 8 News and Thoughts on Windows on ARM

It has recently been made known that Steve Ballmer plans to include some new information about the next version of Microsoft Windows, Windows 8, in his keynote address at the 2012 International CES Conference next January. With Windows 8, the shell gui is getting a makeover, integration with social networking and Xbox Live is being added (with, what I am guessing, is the death of the "Games for Windows" line and integration of those titles into Xbox Live), and a version of "mainstream" Windows is being made for ARM processors.

It looks like the new look of the Windows shell is here to stay. If you still use the traditional keyboard and mouse, you are going to have a fun time with the new interface, which is designed for touchscreens. I am still hoping that Microsoft will not throw the whole hard keyboard + mouse combination out the window while trying to design the shell gui and add in some options that will make the new window manager still easy to use with keyboard + mouse.

It is also noted that Windows 8 will be available for computers with ARM processors. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft has designed Windows for ARM processors. ARM processors are usually associated with embedded hardware, with the main method for (permanent) storage usually being flash rom and the os is flashed to a "rom chip" which upon booting, is "unpacked" either to ram (for smaller embedded systems) or to flash rom (which is the usual method used for embedded hardware). This is because embedded systems most have weaker processors than a desktop or laptop, but they also use less power.

Desktop Windows has always been designed for laptops or desktops, using a hard drive (or ssd) for storage and loading the os from the hard drive. Embedded systems do not usually have a hard drive in them, and even if they do, it is slower than booting from a rom chip. Microsoft does have a version of Windows for embedded systems (Windows CE for lower-end devices and Windows Embedded for higher-end device), so I imagine they will take some tricks from the 2 versions of embedded Windows for speed and processing. I am guessing booting will go something like this (similar to how booting to Linux works): after you turn on the system and you see the bios screen (if the device has one), Microsoft will have some sort of "ram disk" which contains some basic parts of the operating system (like the kernel) and some needed utilities to get the system started flashed from the rom chip to ram, and then loads the rest of the whole operating system

If you are hoping to run your old Windows programs on your new ARM tablet, I will say you are out of luck. This is because for native programs, they are compiled for only one type of processor, and will only work on that type of processor. The only exception is if Microsoft takes the "compatibility emulator" they are putting in Windows 8 for (x86 systems, at least) that allows you to run programs designed for earlier versions of Windows and modify it so it can run x86 code on it. Emulators allow you to run code code compiled for one architecture on another, but the system you are running it on must have enough processing power (and speed) to do this effectively. Programs which require a runtime environment (like the .NET Framework) to run will
be able to get past the processor limitation, because those programs are usually "write once, run anywhere", provided the other system has the needed runtime environment and libraries for your program.

Other than this, there hasn't really been any new Windows 8 information in a while. I imagine that we will be getting more information on Windows 8 as we head into the Fall and in Winter too. As far as Windows on ARM is concerned, I think it is a good addition to Windows. However, Microsoft should not forget that not everyone owns a tablet or a computer with a touchscreen and that many people still use the traditional desktop or laptop with keyboard and mouse/touchpad. I would just like to remind everyone that since this is still in the (programming) labs, things are due to change.

If you have any thoughts on this latest information on Windows 8 or Windows 8 in general, I am happy to hear them. Please make them known via the comment box below. You can also follow me on Twitter as well (username is @rctechgeek).

Edit: If you didn't see my older article on Windows 8, you can find it here.

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