At its grand rollout of Windows 8 Consumer Preview this week, Microsoft placed a huge focus on interoperability between the x86 PC and ARM tablet editions of the new OS, but without pointing to differences among the various flavors that are bound to show up as Win8 evolves into a commercial product. Meanwhile, though, Microsoft has admitted elsewhere that the ARM version will lack some of the manageability features present on the PC side, and analysts are speculating over whether Windows "Ultimate" for PCs will die and a new "Enterprise Edition" will be born.
More specifically, Microsoft's presentation in Barcelona this week touted interoperability from ultramobile notebook PCs like the HP Envy and ARM tablets across entities such as the Windows 8 App Store (pre-announced at CES in January) and SkyDrive, the company's answer to cloud storage, photo and multimedia file sharing, and cross-device synch ups.
"One OS is going to span through the small tablets to the large screens," declared Michael Anguilo, a Microsoft exec, speaking at the launch. "Everything from the apps [to the] OS and the store are connected through the cloud."
As some analysts are now observing, though, Windows hasn't been a single product in the past, and it won't be in version 8, either.
"There'll be Windows 8 that will run on PCs with x32 and x64 processors, and on x64 servers. There will also be a member of the Windows 8 family that is Windows on ARM, but it's a little bit hard yet to figure out where they'll graft it on in the family tree," noted Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in an interview with NotebookReview.
Despite the big push on interoperability at this week's launch, Microsoft has already been making it clear that the tablet edition of Windows 8 will be a different animal in some respects. For example, while the PC versions of Windows 8 will be able to run both Metro style and "Classic" Windows 8 applications, the tablet iteration will be limited to Metro apps.
Meanwhile, however, some users are complaining that apps designed around the touch-centric Metro UI don't necessarily do a fantastic job of taking advantage of PC mouse and trackpad input.
Conversely, it's tough to figure how some applications devised for PCs -- such as full-scale video editing suites -- could work that well on tablets.
Are ARM tablet-specific software apps on the way?
Directions on Microsoft's Cherry doesn't foresee major compability issues in the final release(s) of Windows 8 around driver issues, for instance. However, due to differing hardware characteristics of PCs and ARM tablets, he expects that some developers might build special tablet-specifc editions of business applications in categories like CRM (customer relationship management).
"It isn't just a question of running an application through a compiler and then -- BOOM!-- it's great for tablets. You almost need to think about rebuilding apps," Cherry said.
"I think the ARM product will be just one version, pre-installed from the [OEM]. Microsoft has already said that there will be an app store and that there will be some form of Office. Beyond that they have not detailed [many] differences," observed another analyst, Stephen Baker of the NPD Group.
"Looking at other [tablet] devices we know that the OS upgrade cycle is very different and the level of user control of the device is very different. So if you are looking for differences between ARM and x86 versions I would focus on the increased level of control the user has in the ARM product," Baker told NotebookReview.
Meanwhile, just days before the rollout in Barcelona, Microsoft quietly made it known that the tablet edition of Windows 8 will lack some of the manageability capabilities present on the PC side.
Windows 8 tablets won't be as 'manageable' as PCs
"Although the ARM-based version of Windows does not include the same manageability features that are in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, businesses can use these power-saving devices in unmanaged environments," according to a new document from Microsoft called "Windows 8 Consumer Preview: A Product Guide for Businesses."
While Microsoft didn't say which features will be absent from the tablet version, Cherry supposes that Microsoft might be talking about capabilities such as Group Policy and Active Directory, which are used by IT departments within companies to manage employees' PCs.
Some are surprised by Microsoft's decision. "Corporations want employees to be able to use [mobile] devices. It looks as though Windows 8 tablets might not be any more manageable than iPads," Cherry contended.
On the other hand, Baker suggested that many organizations are allowing employees to use another type of ARM-based tablet -- the iPad -- for work purposes, anyway, regardless of iPad manageability.
"I would point out that iPads are in enterprises today in significant numbers through the iPad. So large enterprises are willing to allow users access, in the work environment, to different devices with different levels of responsibility," Baker said, in an e-mail to NotebookReview.
Will Microsoft drop Ultimate and adopt an 'Enterprise Edition'?
The release of Microsoft's new document also fueled renewed speculation that Microsoft might veer from tradition by conjuring up an Enterprise Edition of Windows 8.
This kind of speculation got started the previous week when CNET blogger Stephen Chapman published information he found in HP support documents referring to three PC versions of Windows 8 -- a generic "Windows 8," "Professional Edition, and "Enterprise Edition" -- along with "Windows 8 Server x64, Windows 8 Client ARM," Windows 8 Client x64, [and] Windows 8 Client x86."
Glaringly absent under this scenario is the Ultimate Edition. Baker conjectures that Microsoft might opt to make Ultimate an OEM-specific product in Windows 8, available to consumers and/or businsses only after it's been preloaded on to high-end PCs.
Baker also believes that an Enterprise Edition of Windows 8 will definitely happen. "They will certainly have an Enterprise Edition. [There] is a significant demand for one, and a need for a different product and a different selling motion in bringing large enterprises into Windows 8. [Microsoft] is very attuned to the needs of its largest customers," Baker maintained.
Cherry, on the other hand, doesn't think that Microsoft will provide an Enterprise Edition of Windows 8. The analyst advises caution in trying to interpret the internal documents of a Microsoft partner like HP.
"Manufacturers are building machines. It's not clear exactly how they're using Windows 8 right now, anyhow," he elaborated. In any case, Microsoft itself might not have made a final decision as to which product SKUs to sell, according to Cherry.
Instead, as he sees it, it's more likely that with Windows 8, Microsoft will continue to offer an edition like Ultimate which is customizable to the needs of specific organizations.
To read more about Windows 8, check out our W8 for 8 special report.
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