4 min read

Practical Analysis: Wintel's Compatibility Mess

Like most everyone else, Intel and Microsoft got the tablet market wrong.

App Compatibility Conundrum

This brings us back to the scuffle two weeks ago, which centered on Windows 8. Microsoft initially said Windows 8 would be only a 64-bit operating system, and then when it looked around for 64-bit chips that could be the basis for power-sipping phones and tablets, it found none and changed its mind, saying Win8 would support 32-bit ARM chips on those portable devices.

At a recent Intel investor conference, a company exec apparently said more than he should have, or more than he knew, when he said app compatibility would be had only with Win8 64 bit running on Atom chips. He went on to say there would be no compatibility possible with ARM chips.

The Intel exec's statement is probably accurate, depending on which set of apps you think should be able to run on a Win8 phone or tablet. Be that as it may, Microsoft said the statement is inaccurate.

It's not hard to see why Microsoft is getting comfortable with ARM. The Wintel beer and pizza party is no fun if Intel is two years late bringing the beer. Windows Phone 7 got a major update recently, adding some 500 features. It's a clear signal that Microsoft intends to continue to develop WP7 at least for phones if not for tablets.

But in doing so, Microsoft also is making clear there's a different code path for Windows 7 than for Windows Phone 7, and those differences will probably continue into the next versions. So when you talk about compatibility, you have to ask: Compatibility with wha<

On phones, I think it's pretty clear--supposedly there are more than 10,000 WP7 apps now, and those will work on WP8 whenever it arrives. There are hundreds of thousands of Win7 (and previous) apps, and Win8 will probably run only 64-bit versions of those, making obsolete those apps that haven't been recompiled--including many apps IT shops developed themselves. On laptops and desktops, that means a long transition to Win8, just as it has been with any Microsoft operating system.

The place where it all goes to hell is on tablets. As I stated earlier, recent history tells us that users want tablets to act more like big phones than little laptops. Sure, Microsoft can create a version of Win8 that has the right user interface on Atom chips, but the compatibility users want is with apps that understand how to use the six-way gyroscope, GPS, touch screen, and other features that make smartphones smart. Those apps run on a WP7-ARM combo. Running big fat Wintel applications on those devices, at least at this point, doesn't appear to be all that important.

While there's no doubt it would serve Microsoft and its customers well if Redmond laid out a plan for all its client devices and corresponding app compatibility, the commotion should get enterprise IT architects thinking, too. I hope, as you've made your transition to Windows 7, you've taken the time to catalog the apps your IT team runs now and must run into the future. If you haven't decided to either Webify apps or bring them back into the data center to be accessed through some sort of virtual desktop, now's the time to do it.

No matter how you look at it, there will be no Windows XP-like monopoly in your future. Users will want to access apps from a variety of devices and operating systems. My mantra: Webify if you can, VDI if you must, and avoid platform-specific programming like the plague.

As for Microsoft and Intel, that they've given Google and Apple and ARM this big of an opening will be one of the biggest mistakes these two giants have ever made.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at [email protected].

To find out more about Art Wittmann, please visit his page.

More than 100 major reports will be released this year. Sign up or upgrade your InformationWeek Analytics membership.