Windows 8: Not as unified as we thought?

Microsoft may be marketing a unified Windows 8, but after a furor over rules for dual-booting ARM machines it looks like we'll be buying three distinctly different products

Over the weekend the blog world erupted in response to a report by Computerworld UK blogger Glyn Moody, who discovered that Microsoft was changing the rules for dual-booting ARM-based Windows 8 computers.

The ensuing furor polarized along predictable lines with time-worn arguments -- namely, "Microsoft monopolists are trying to destroy Linux" vs. "Microsoft is looking out for its defenseless customers." But I'm left with two lingering concerns that point to a much deeper problem.

The technical side of the revelation goes like this: Intel- and AMD-based "Made for Windows 8" machines can be mult-booted, although the operating system(s) must be signed digitally. The signature must be authorized by a Microsoft-recognized certificate authority, or the signature for the operating system must be entered manually into the computer.

ARM-based "Made for Windows 8" machines, we've just discovered, will be prevented from multibooting at all. Moreover, it won't be possible to replace Windows 8 with a different operating system unless Microsoft certifies the alternate operating system.

Of course, there are many nuances, primarily involving the Secure Boot feature of UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface), which is the Windows 8-mandated replacement for BIOS. Microsoft's Building Windows 8 blog has two posts germane to the topic, and Ars Technica has the best overview of the inner details in the controversy.

But two things in particular struck me. First, Microsoft lied. Or to be a little more charitable, Microsoft suffered a severe documentation malfunction (somewhat akin to a performer's wardrobe malfunction, I suppose).

In the Building Windows 8 blog post "Protecting the pre-OS environment with UEFI," Microsoft states that it "supports OEMs having the flexibility to decide who manages security certificates and how to allow customers to import and manage those certificates, and manage secure boot. We believe it is important to support this flexibility to the OEMs and to allow our customers to decide how they want to manage their systems."

Yet in Microsoft's "Windows 8 Hardware Certification Requirements," which was the subject of Moody's report, on page 116 Microsoft says on the topic "MANDATORY: Enable/Disable Secure Boot ... Disabling Secure MUST NOT be possible on ARM systems."

It's apparent to me that the blog post only pertains to the Intel/AMD version of Windows 8, but the authors of the post didn't make that point. It definitely doesn't apply to the ARM version of Windows 8. They didn't mention ARM in this context at all. The result is a clear contradiction.

As you know if you've followed Microsoft for more than a week, documentation malfunctions at the company aren't unusual. This particular slip concerns me, though, because it's indicative of a much larger problem: Microsoft's being very sloppy -- perhaps intentionally, perhaps not -- about highlighting the considerable differences between the Intel/AMD and ARM versions of Windows 8.

It all goes back to Microsoft's marketing push to make customers think that the Intel version of Windows 8 is somehow related to the ARM version of Windows 8. As best I can tell, they're as different as Silverlight and JavaScript. Granted, it's still too early to delineate differences between the versions -- even the (few) demos we've seen of ARM hardware running Windows 8 may be largely illusory. But at some point in the near future Microsoft has to let the ARM cat out of the bag.

Which leads me to my second big problem with this Secure Boot kerfluffle: Microsoft decided long ago that it would deliver one version of Windows for multiple platforms -- desktop, notebook, netbook, Ultrabook, tablet (note that Qualcomm already has plans for Ultrabook-like ARM machines). Supposedly writing a program for one -- plus or minus a recompile -- gives you apps for (the Metro side of) all. IT is supposed to look at the Metro part of Windows 8 as some sort of unifying experience, valid on big screens and small ones, mouse-laden and finger tapping.

But Windows 8 isn't shaping up that way at all.

It's looking more and more like we're going to have three different versions of Windows 8. First will be the old Windows 7 desktop, supported by several new technologies under the covers, but visually and programmatically almost unchanged from the Windows 7 we all know and love right now. Second will be Metro on Intel, which isn't anything at all like the desktop. And a distinctly different third version of Windows 8 will run Metro on ARM.

Microsoft may end up marketing a unified Windows 8 to the uninitiated. But it looks like we'll be buying three distinctly different products.

From an IT perspective, if one of your users decides to bring their own ARM Windows 8 tablet to work, the machine they'll want to hook into your network might not work like the Intel Windows 8 tablets you'll (presumably) be deploying. That situation could turn volatile. Any machine that says "Windows 8" on the sticker will work the same as all the others on the corporate network, right? That's what your users will think.

We've just seen one instance where Intel and ARM Windows 8 machines definitely won't work the same. It may be a fluke or it may be a harbinger -- still too early to tell.

But I can foresee thousands of corporate tech support phone conversations starting like this one:

Tech support: "What computer are you using?"

User: "It says here Windows 8."

Tech support: "Is it an ARM, Intel, or AMD device?"

User: "Huh?"

Something to look forward to...

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.