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Will Legacy Software Run on Windows 8 ARM Tablets?

written by: •edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 10/25/2011

There has been much interest in Microsoft's decision to develop a version of Windows 8 for ARM tablets - but what of the consumer-based expectation that the device will run all of the same software that their Windows 8 desktop can?

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    With Windows 8 just around the corner, you’re perhaps already thinking about compatibility with your existing apps.

    Or not. After all, why would you? Windows software generally works from version to version without a problem, and where there are problems Microsoft has provided free virtualization solutions to help you out.

    However if you’ve got your eye on one of the ARM processor tablets that are being touted as a likely choice for many Windows 8 users, then you might want to think twice before setting aside funds for one of these computers.

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    You’ve Got Your Nice New Tablet…

    Let’s put ourselves in the picture. When 2012 comes around, there are likely to be different versions of Windows 8 designed for different types of user, such as the home user, the work-place based professional user, etc.

    Windows 8 tablet in action? There are likely to be high-end tablets similar to those that are currently available (it isn't uncommon to pay over $1000 for a Windows 7 tablet computer), hybrid devices (a notebook where the display swivels around to double as a tablet) and of course lower-spec tablets that will be available as an alternative to the iPad and Android slates that are currently enjoying a lot of success.

    ARM is a set of instructions run by processors that are currently found in Android phones and tablets and the Apple iPad. These processors are cheaper to produce than those found in desktop and notebook computers (which use x86 instruction processor) and the method used to process data results in considerably less power being used. As such, this type of processor is perfectly suited to mobile devices.

    The differences between ARM processors and x86 processors are numerous. Basically, the way in which each type of CPU deals with instructions is completely different - in layman's terms, the equivalent of relating a recipe in English to an Italian. ARM vs x86 Processors: What's the Difference? looks at this subject in more detail.

    You'll find x86 processors in Windows desktops and notebooks, as well as Apple Mac computers; these are the "go-to" devices for data processing, whether for gaming, image and video editing, audio editing or programming and development.

    What this means, however, is that software such as Windows Live, Microsoft Office and Windows games may not be available on ARM devices – legacy apps simply won’t run.

    So what’s the point?

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    Marketing the ARM Tablet

    Well, let’s take the iPad as an example. Apple has given their tablet computer an alternative version of the iPhone operating system, iOS, and has provided its users with a hugely usable operating system indeed. However, there is no way in which you can install Mac OS X apps on an iPad, and thanks to the different names given to the devices, there is no chance of anyone buying an iPad and expecting to install iWork.

    What this means is that Microsoft will need to be very careful with their marketing of these devices. There is every chance that a Windows 8 ARM tablet could be purchased in error, with the buyer expecting to be able to run Microsoft Outlook, play Civilization V and spend time editing videos. Of course, these applications are all intended for x86 devices and simply won't work on hardware with different processors, regardless of the operating system.

    The target market of an ARM tablet is surely the same people buying iPads and Android tablets with lofty aims of productivity. Therefore we’re probably looking at an outlay of around $600 and a lot of disappointment…

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    The Obvious Workaround (Cloud/Office 365)

    With the right marketing, however, the Windows 8 ARM tablet could be a massive success, capable of vying for supremacy alongside the iPad.

    After all, the market is there, and so is the software.

    That’s right – software already exists that can be used on Windows 8 ARM tablets. There is no reason why Windows Phone software shouldn’t run on Windows 8 with the correct environment, but this could be incidental to the power of the cloud.

    Microsoft has been pushing Windows Live and Office 365 over the past few months as major elements of their current product range, and both of these can be key to the success of an ARM Windows 8 tablet.

    You can immediately forget about the inability to install Microsoft Office or Windows Live Messenger on an ARM tablet by taking advantage of the strengths of Windows Phone and Office 365. Messaging is handled really well on Windows Phone, while browser-based word processing, number crunching and presentation editing avoids the need to provide device-specific versions of the popular Office applications.

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    Time to Come Clean, Corporate IT Budgets Must Know!

    We know most of the above thanks to Windows 8 Developer Preview and interviews that have been given by the team behind Windows 8. While it’s fun to speculate, there is a big group of people who need to know just what they can expect from Windows 8 on all devices.

    After all, Windows 7 has only been with us since 2009. Windows XP was Microsoft’s sole desktop operating system from 2001 until Vista was released in 2007. Rolling out new hardware is simple compared to rolling our operating system updates, and given the success of Windows 7 and its status as a relatively new OS, Windows 8 might not seem as attractive to budget holders as it does to everybody else.

    Accountants and those in charge of IT budgets have their hands on the purse strings in private and public organizations across North America and Europe. The longer it takes for Microsoft to reveal information about the compatibility levels of Windows 8, particularly in the current economic climate, the less likely the operating system is to succeed in its key market, at least when it is first released. We also need more information about the ARM tablet version of the operating system, a project that has been confirmed but of which very little is currently known.

    While Windows 8 is hugely impressive and has the potential to redefine computing, Microsoft needs to start letting potential corporate customers know more information about the platform and the ARM version soon - or risk more encroachment into this area of its business from Apple's iPad.

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