Whether we’re living in a post-PC world, as many think today when they look at growth rates and profits, or it’s PC-Plus, For Ever, as Microsoft’s very literate chief ideologue staunchly maintains, it doesn’t really matter. When the Redmond giant comes up with a new version of Windows, it’s a Big Festive Deal that will impact the lives of hundreds of millions of PC users, and twist the fates of PC makers and application developers.

This year’s festive occasion was the Build conference held last week in Anaheim, California, where Microsoft revealed “Windows reimagined”, a.k.a. Windows 8. If you have the time and inclination, you can watch the keynote sessions and download the Developer Preview, which I did. (See Lifehacker for tips on how to install Windows 8 on a virtual machine. They worked for this accident-prone user.)

For this long-time Windows user, two things stick out:

  • The innovative Metro UI and its “have your cake and eat it” coexistence with the more traditional Windows look.
  • More important, the forking of apps on the ARM version of Win 8.

The Metro UI, a close relative of the elegant and justly-praised Windows Phone 7 UI, welcomes you when you log in:

The idea is to present a “touch ready”, customizable set of tiles that address our favorite everyday activities. The Metro UI is a step along the “Windows Everywhere” road that leads to a single, elegant UI for all Microsoft-powered devices, whether they’re PCs, smartphones, or tablets. (I know…Microsoft isn’t keen on using the “T” word. As Frank Shaw tells us, they’re “companion devices” that surround the center stage PC.)

Touch the Desktop tile and…

…the familiar Windows UI is back…but this time with a Ribbon, the same feature that was introduced with Office 2007 and that figured more prominently — some say intrusively — in Office 2010 applications.

You might see this mix of new and old as a lack of coherence, a clash of UI models.

Personally, I perceive it as keeping with Microsoft’s traditional incremental approach: Never break with the past, introduce new features while keeping a strong link with what users and developers already know.

Still, one wonders whether paying customers, as opposed to company officials, will be impressed by the device-agnostic first look, or confused by the underlying UI differences.

Let’s turn to the ARM version of Windows 8, one that will run on real tablets, feather light devices that have a long-lasting battery and a virtual keyboard. It’s no surprise that existing Windows applications, written for Intel’s x86 chips, won’t work. What is surprising is that Microsoft has no plan to adapt, to recompile those apps for the new processor. Let’s let Steven Sinofsky, Windows Division President, explain:

Microsoft’s concern is that x86 apps aren’t designed with power frugality in mind, something ARM tablets and notebooks are likely to at least partially prioritize. Security is also a concern: “if we do let them run, we just brought the perceived negatives of some of the ecosystem” he explains, “so, people say, great, now it’s easy to port viruses and malware and we’ll port those.”

This forking, this split of Windows  devices into two incompatible strains isn’t the Microsoft way. For the first time in Microsoft’s history, the users of Windows-powered hardware will have to ask: ‘Will this application work on that device?’ You can run Office 2010 if there’s Intel inside, but not on its ARM sibling

Why?

Microsoft lost its position in the smartphone world and has placed a heavy bet on Nokia in an effort to regain its place. Now Ballmer & Co. watch as tablets grow even faster than smartphones, and the ARM architecture enjoys close to 100% market share in both of these categories. So Microsoft must go ARM. But, as Sinovsky explains, because x86 apps aren’t designed with power consumption in mind, Microsoft has no choice but to go for a new generation of power-optimized ARM-based applications.

For Microsoft, it’s either take both forks in the road–develop two independent applications branches–or leave the market to ‘i’-terlopers. And Intel be damned for not delivering the low-powered processors they keep promising year after year.

(Intel’s response at the Intel Developer Forum, also held last week: “Intel and Google [will] optimize future releases of the Android™ platform for Intel’s family of low power Intel® Atom™ processors.” Microsoft be damned. Company execs also promised that next year’s Haswell chip will yield laptops that boast a 24 hours battery capacity.)

Of course, the forking might only be temporary. Microsoft could be making a bold, smart move: Force developers to write new “Metro style” applications, that, when recompiled, will run on ARM and x86 tabl…err…“companion devices.” If Intel really delivers the “24 hour battery life” microprocessor, they can move back to one hardware family. The ARM bet will have been a brief affair, a hedge and a stick. (Aging geeks will remember Microsoft breaking its Wintel vows, having brief flings dead-end with Alpha and PowerPC chips, respectively from DEC and Moto-IBM.)

Again, it’s not the usual Microsoft way. The company typically moves forward with great care, introducing new features only if backwards compatibility could be preserved. The results have been spectacularly good but, over time, the weight of legacy layers in the operating system and application software has become the kind of liability Sinovsky referred to. With Windows 8, Microsoft breaks with the past and picks an alternative to Intel.

In the meantime, customers, particularly those in Big Enterprise, will be asking a lot of questions: Why upgrade, which hardware, which applications are available on what

It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft navigates these straits with more than the empty rhetoric that did nothing for the company against the rise of smartphone and tablets.

We’re told Windows 8 will ship in about a year. A long, long time in this exploding market.

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: On a related note, Horace Dediu just penned yet another sharp Asymco post: OS turning circles: Questioning Windows’ maneuverability.

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