As far back as I can remember the differences between the full version of Windows 8 and the tablet version, now dubbed Windows RT, were made pretty clear. Whilst the Modern UI section of them was going to be essentially identical the full version of Windows wasn’t going to run on anything that wasn’t x86 compatible and RT would be the version that could run on low power systems like ARM. This, logically, came with some draw backs the largest of which is the omission of the desktop environment on Windows RT devices. In all honesty this didn’t bother me as Microsoft is making a version of their Surface tablet (and I’m sure others will as well) that would run the full desktop anyway.
The delineation also made a lot of sense due to the different markets that both versions were targeting. The full version is squarely aimed at the desktop/laptop space whilst the RT version is strictly for mobile computing. In terms of functionality there’s a lot of crossover between these two spaces but the separation essentially meant that you had your desktop with its oodles of backwards compatibility that Microsoft is known for whilst also getting that nice, highly focused tablet environment should you want it.
However as it turns out Windows RT is far more full featured that I first thought and is capable of running Win32 applications:
Thanks one intrepid user, Clrokr, over at XDA Developers it has been found out that Microsoft actually included full Win32 compatibility in Windows RT devices that run on the ARM architecture. Whilst this doesn’t mean you can straight up run those executables on said platform it does mean that any Windows application that you have the source of can be recompiled to run, without issue, on Windows RT devices. The above screenshot is from another user, peterdn, who has recompiled PuTTy to run on ARM and it appears to be functioning quite fine. Other applications have also been tested as well and shown to work as you’d expect.
Thinking about it more clearly this shouldn’t have come as a surprise as the architecture diagram for Windows 8 clearly shows that C/C++/C# are fully supported on both platforms and the inclusion of the desktop on Windows RT devices (again something I wasn’t aware of) would have you thinking everything was there to support this. As it turns out the only thing that was stopping this from working in the first place was runtime authentication level that was hard coded to only allow Microsoft signed applications to run in such an environment. The jailbreak that Clrokr details in this post is simply an in memory overwrite of this value which will allow any application to run. From there you just need to recompile your application and you’re golden.
The reasons for the lock out make sense from a business point of view: Microsoft was trying to create a pristine tablet environment that was tightly controlled in order to create a better experience. However at the same time porting all of the underlying architecture to ARM would have required quite a bit of effort and locking this functionality away from people seems like a strange idea. Whilst I’m not going to say they should unlock it for everyone having it as a configurable option would have meant that most users wouldn’t know about it but power users, like the ones who discovered this, could take advantage of it. I haven’t seen if Microsoft has made an official response to this yet or not but I’m sure they’d win more than a couple fans if they did this and it doesn’t look like it would be that hard to implement.
I was genuinely surprised by this as I hadn’t caught on pretty much all of Windows, including everything that makes it tick under the hood, had been ported across to the ARM architecture. I had believed that it was just a port of the core functionality required to support the WinRT framework but as the above screenshots prove Windows RT devices are pretty much fully fledged copies of Windows, they just need their applications recompiled in order to work. Of course questions of how those applications fair vs their modernized counterparts in a tablet environment remains to be seen but it’s interesting that the option is there and that Microsoft has gone to such lengths to keep people from fiddling with it.
I’ve been using Windows 8 as my main system for the better part of 2 months now and, whilst I’ll leave the in-depth impressions for the proper review, I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. Sure I wasn’t particularly happy with the way things were laid out initially but for the most part if you just blunder along like its Windows 7 you’re not going to struggle with it for very long. I might not use any of the modern styled applications, they don’t feel like they’re particularly well suited to the mouse/keyboard scenario if I’m honest, but everything else about it works as expected. Of course whilst Microsoft has already sold 40 million licenses of Windows 8 most people are focusing on Windows RT, care of the Surface tablet.
For the technically inclined the differences between the two are pretty stark and we’ve known for a long time that the Surface is essentially Microsoft’s answer to the iPad. The lines are a little bit more blurry between Surface/RT and the full version of Windows 8, thanks to the Modern Styled UI being shared between them, but the lack of a desktop made it pretty clear where the delineation lay. It seems however that there’s a feeling among some the bigger media outlets that Windows 8 is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts which has been perplexing me all morning:
What we’re seeing, I think, is Microsoft dancing around an uncomfortable reality: Windows RT just doesn’t have much to offer, so it’s hard to explain how it’s different from Windows 8 without making it look inferior.
The only distinct advantage for Windows RT is its support for “connected standby,” a power-saving mode that lets the device keep an eye on e-mail and other apps while it’s not in use. It’s a nice feature to have, but on its own it’s a tough sell compared to Windows 8′s wider software support. (UPDATE: As Eddie Yasi points out in the comments, the Atom-based chips that Windows 8 tablets are using, codenamed Clover Trail, support connected standby as well.)
The main thrust of the article, and another one it linked to, is that there’s been no real information from Microsoft about the differences between the fully fledged version of Windows 8 and its RT cousin. I’ll be fair to the article and not use anything past its publication date but for anyone so inclined I wrote about the differences between the two platforms well over a year ago and I was kind of late to the party on it too. Indeed the vast majority of the tech press surrounding the Surface release understood these differences quite clearly and it appears that both Time and The Verge were both being willingly ignorant simply to get a story.
Granted The Verge has something of a point that the retail representatives didn’t know the product but then again why were you asking in depth technical questions of a low wage retail worker? Most people who are looking for a Surface/iPad like device aren’t going to want to know if their legacy applications will run on it because, to them, they’re not the same thing. You could argue that the customer might have seen the Modern UI at home and then assumed that the Surface was exactly the same but I’d struggle to find someone who had installed Windows 8 this early in the piece and wasn’t aware that the Surface was a completely different beast.
Indeed the quote paragraphs above imply that Jared Newman (writer of the Time article) isn’t aware that the RT framework, the thing that powers the Modern UI, is the glue that will join all of Microsoft’s ecosystem together. Not only does it underpin Windows 8 but it’s also the framework for Windows Phone 8 and (I am speculating here but the writing is on the wall) the upcoming Xbox. What Windows RT devices offer you is the same experience that you’ll be able to get anywhere else Microsoft ecosystem but on low power devices. Newman makes the point that they could very well run them on Atom processors however anyone who’s actually used one can tell you that their performance is not up to scratch with their i3/5/7 line and is barely usable for desktop applications. They’re comparable in the low power space, meaning they would have made a decent replacement for ARM, but considering that 95% of the world’s portable devices run on the ARM it makes much more sense to go with the dominant platform rather than using something that’s guaranteed to give a sub-par experience.
I don’t like doing these kinds of take down posts, it usually feels like I’m shouting at a brick wall, but when there’s a fundamental lack of understanding or wilful ignorance of the facts I feel compelled to say something. The Windows8/RT distinctions are clear and, should you do even a small amount of research, the motives for doing so are also obvious. Thankfully most of the tech press was immune to this (although TechCrunch got swept up in this as well, tsk tsk) so there’s only a few bad apples that needed cleaning up.