The future of desktop applications on Windows 8 tablets appears fuzzy at the moment thanks to Microsoft’s tight lips on the subject and conjectures based on rumors and unnamed sources. Will ARM-based tablets get the traditional desktop interface or just the Metro UI? Will desktop apps get a chance to play as long as they’re certified, or will Microsoft only certify their own apps?
No firm answers at the present, though we may get a few later this month when the first beta of Windows 8 is available.
Through all the haze and confusion around this, I worry that the end result will be that Win8 tablets will suffer from a problem that currently plagues Android and iOS tablets: lack of really good productivity apps.
Tablets are great multimedia and entertainment devices, no doubt. But I always warn people away who are looking to do robust productivity tasks. At this point it’s still not possible to, for example, create a semi-complex blog post with images without a lot of frustration, cursing, and disappointment on the iPad. Tablet apps simply do not work as well as desktop apps or web apps designed for desktop.
That’s why there is still a dedicated group of Windows tablet fans that cling to their convertibles and give the iPad and all these Android pretenders a serious side-eye. Windows 8 offered the prospect having your cake and eating it, too, as far as productivity and robust software married with an eminently usable interface.
For some devices this will absolutely be true — the Lenovo Yoga, for instance — but maybe not on pure tablets running on ARM chips.
Windows 8 will effectively have two different interfaces. One will look like a Windows 7 environment with some updates. The other will look similar to Windows Phone 7. Users will be able to switch between them on traditional desktop or laptop computers that use an x86 architecture — the chips you find in computers now, primarily made by Intel and AMD for the U.S. market. Computers and tablets based around ARM chips — those found in today’s smartphones and tablets made by Qualcomm, Samsung, Texas Instruments, and Nvidia, among others — will get the Metro UI and either no desktop interface or one restricted in some way.
Why the restriction? Battery life and resources, mainly. Programs made to run on the desktop tend to take up more resources than those made to run on ARM tablets. It’s not too complicated or time-intensive to make a tablet app ready to run in a desktop environment on an Intel chip; the reverse is not true.
In the end, Windows 8 tablets may end up with only tablet apps, and that could put them at the same disadvantage in the productivity arena as the iPad and Android slates. Not sure that’s Microsoft’s aim.
The software maker is apparently working hard to ensure that Office 15 will run well in either environment on any kind of chip. But will the slimming down make MS Office as pared down as QuickOffice or Documents To Go? If so, I don’t want it.
Microsoft is going to have a time trying to manage people’s expectations across devices. The average consumer probably doesn’t know the difference between a product with an ARM chip and an x86 one. And I can see a lot of anger erupting when people buy Windows 8 tablets expecting them to act like Windows 8 desktops and run the exact same software.
Will this potential issue spur developers to step up and create apps that offer the robust functionality traditional computer users need while also working in the Metro interface? It’s a tall order, I know. But a necessary one.