Confusion Reigns Over Microsoft’s Plans For Windows 8 PC And Mobile Apps

With probably a year to go before Windows 8 arrives, it’s not a huge surprise that there would be a little confusion over exactly how Windows developers will need to manage Windows 8’s split personality. But it’s starting to get a bit odd that Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) doesn’t seem interested in clarifying how Windows 8 apps will run on different devices.

In a first for Windows, the forthcoming Windows 8 will run on both x86 chips developed by Intel (NSDQ: INTC) and AMD as well as ARM chips, which are used in nearly every smartphone and tablet sold on the planet. The consensus coming out of last week’s Build conference, during which the Windows 8 developer preview was unveiled, was that applications written for the Desktop interface that runs older PC-based software would not be able to run on Windows 8 ARM devices, and a Microsoft executive appeared to confirm in a follow-up discussion with reporters. Windows 8 will have two modes: Metro, which looks more like Windows Phone 7 and has impressed developers, and Desktop, which looks like the current Windows 7 software for PCs.

But Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet noticed that a Windows 8 tablet running an ARM chip has a section in its Metro home screen called “Desktop,” which seems like it would allow that tablet to switch into Desktop mode and run PC-based applications written for Windows 7. That would therefore imply that ARM tablets could in fact run older applications, presumably through some sort of emulation layer that Microsoft has yet to discuss.

The company has declined several opportunities from several organizations (including this one) to clarify the point further and its public-relations representatives don’t seem eager to clear the air. Perhaps that’s because Microsoft is preparing its own blog post or release on the situation, but it might also be because plans for how ARM tablets will run older applications are still in flux.

This is important because Microsoft has a perennial problem when trying to roll out new technology: it needs to find a way to advance the ball without angering the enterprise customers who depend on Windows to have backwards-compatibility with their internal applications. Cutting off ARM tablets from PC apps could have encouraged PC developers to build Metro-style apps that would work on both PCs and tablets, a huge volume opportunity given that even stagnant PC growth still translates to 200 million units a year. And since Microsoft is giving off every indication that it wants the Metro interface to be at the heart of future products, it would like to have as many people writing for that interface as possible.

It would be a shame for Microsoft to squander the goodwill it has brokered among developers with the impressive Windows 8 showcase last week because it’s unable or unwilling to clarify basic points about how the development process will work. Windows 8 will be a very important release for its mobile aspirations, and if it fails to take advantage of the opportunity to move its developers forward into a mobile future geared around the Metro interface, it might have trouble ever pulling off such a feat.