Windows 8 on ARM chips: It was too good to be true

Only Metro apps will run on ARM tablets, so Windows 8 is less pan-device than Microsoft has implied

OK, you fooled me, Microsoft. When the company first announced in January that Windows 8 would run on ARM chips -- used in most mobile devices -- I, like many people, assumed that Windows 7 and earlier would not come along for the ride. But this spring, Microsoft accused a blogger of being wrong in a post that suggested, among other things, that ARM-based computers would not run Windows 7 (though Microsoft didn't say what was wrong).

And this week at its Build conference for Windows developers, Microsoft showed off more than a dozen PCs and tablets running Windows 8, as a series of executives -- starting with Windows chief Steven Sinofsky on Tuesday -- touted Windows 8 on ARM while also talking about Windows 8's support for "legacy" Windows 7 applications. CEO Steve Ballmer closed the keynote sessions Wednesday saying that Microsoft's Windows strategy was "ARM and Intel, not ARM or Intel."

So I, like many others, thought Microsoft had pulled off the same trick that Apple did half a decade ago when it shifted from IBM's PowerPC chips to Intel's x86 chips: letting PowerPC apps run on the new Intel Macs.

I should have known better than to expect Microsoft to be as smart as Apple. Late Wednesday, in an earnings call with financial analysts, Sinofsky corrected a questioner on the issue, stating unequivocally for the first time that Windows 8 on ARM devices will run only the new Metro widget-style apps, not legacy Windows apps like Office.

What else is Microsoft leading us to believe that is not true? Maybe its Windows Live-based syncing won't be as broad as suggested. Maybe its mapping of UI elements across touch and keyboard/mouse will not be so automatic. Maybe Windows 8 on a tablet and Windows 8 on a PC will in fact be as separate as iOS on the iPad and Mac OS X on a Mac are -- maybe Windows 8's pan-device strategy is really just the same as Apple's strategy of having related OSes and common dev tools.

But it's my fault I was fooled. Microsoft has played this "we didn't actually say that" game before. And the lack of access to Microsoft Wndows execs at Build and the PR people who knew nothing (they didn't even have the session schedules) should have been a red flag that a hiding act was in progress. Fool me once ...

The good news is that this little false implication serves as an object lesson: If Microsoft is vague about or merely implies something, assume that whatever you thought might be there actually isn't. If you see only tea leaves, there are no Earl Gray and crumpets coming.

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