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As Windows 8 Consumer Preview Nears, Microsoft’s ARM Strategy Comes into Focus

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Developers have been kicking the tires on Windows 8 for months, evaluating its capabilities and preparing their software for the operating system’s release. Later this month, Microsoft plans to let the general public get in on the act.

On February 29, Microsoft will host a Windows 8 Customer Preview event during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. It will serve as the launch of a pre-release version of Windows 8 for consumers.

Why make an OS-related announcement during a mobile trade show? Tablets, naturally.

Windows still dominates on desktops and notebooks, but Microsoft has a problem. In the years since Windows 7’s release, consumers have flocked to tablets, particularly Apple’s iPad. Watching new software market opportunities open up, developers have been pouring their efforts into iOS and Android, establishing healthy app ecosystems for both platforms. Microsoft has been stuck watching from the sidelines.

With Windows 8, the software giant hopes to change that.

ARMed for the Tablet Wars

The software giant sees an opportunity to bridge the tablet and the desktop. In addition to supporting traditional x86 chips, the company has been working to get Windows to run on ARM-based processors — the energy-efficient chip architecture favored by tablet makers.

Microsoft is also attempting to dispel the notion that Windows on ARM (WOA) will be a touch-friendly, Windows-lite environment. Users can expect the same Windows 8 experience between x86 hardware and ARM devices, according to Microsoft’s President of Windows and Windows Live, Steven Sinofsky.

In an MSDN blog post, Sinofsky explains the deep level of commonality between WOA and its x86 counterpart. He writes, “Using WOA ‘out of the box’ will feel just like using Windows 8 on x86/64. You will sign in the same way. You will start and launch apps the same way.”

And about Windows desktop on ARM? You bet.

“You will have access to the intrinsic capabilities of Windows, from the new Start screen and Metro style apps and Internet Explorer, to peripherals, and if you wish, the Windows desktop with tools like Windows File Explorer and desktop Internet Explorer,” he adds.

WOA will also apparently “include” a productivity suite codenamed “Office 15,” that preserves file format and document compatibility with older versions. Office 15 will be comprised of touch-optimized, desktop versions of the Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

But don’t expect native x86 code to run on ARM tablets. Developers writing Metro style apps can enjoy seamless cross-compatibility as long as they target the WinRT API. Otherwise, Microsoft pledges that it will support both x86 and WOA versions of software by accommodating both in its app store.

Whether Microsoft strategy will pay off is a hotly debated topic. In the months leading up to the Windows 8 launch, however, it’s evident that the company means business when it comes to tablets. And with the Office 15 on WOA reveal, it’s also betting on tablets for business.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals.

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