Windows 8 preview: deja vu

14 Sep 2011

In the midst of the euphoria over the preview of Windows 8, does anyone have a sense of deja vu?

Anyone who has been a geek long enough will remember Microsoft’s first wave of mobile computing. Pocket PC was launched in April 2000. It soon became, Windows Mobile, 2003, 2003 SE, then Windows Mobile 5, 6 and sort of fizzled out at 6.5.

At its peak, the mobile OS from Redmond had pretty much the entire market to share between itself and Symbian and because of this dominance, the most exciting headline was Microsoft’s and HTC’s argument over placement of the Windows logo on the homescreen. Then the iPhone happened and the rest is history.

Windows 8 is embracing this new-fangled low-power ARM architecture (which isn’t quite new actually) as well as its conventional x86 roots. But Pocket PC actually worked on three architectures, ARM, MIPS and HS-3. Yes, the same MIPS that powers your old PlayStation 2. Microsoft has embraced this write once for multiple architectures paradigm before, not that it mattered in the end.

Then there is the Metro UI with programs that are optimised for multi-touch screens and touchpads, but retaining compatibility with the traditional WIMP (Windows Icons Mice Pointers) paradigm and Windows 7 applications.

Again, Microsoft has been there and done that. Windows Mobile was released in touchscreen versions and smartphone versions, and the touchscreen version had both d-pad navigation and a touchpad with a pointer on some devices to make sure that programmers had a hard time covering all the bases. Properly written programs could run on both platforms, but as many of us remember, it was simply clumsy and most programs ended up optimised just for the touchscreen version.

Backward compatibility has been the bane of many a successful platform, not just Windows Mobile. When Symbian moved to a touchscreen, its annoying double click selection was a hangover for non-touchscreen compatibility where the first click was to stop the pointer and the second to click. Backward compatibility has a cost and as history has proven time and time again, often the cost is terminal.

When Windows Phone 7 came out, Redmond made a daring decision to break compatibility with Windows Mobile 6.5 and start afresh. They have taken the opposite approach in the Windows 8 tablet move.

Just think of a few hundred million Windows 8 devices bringing down 3G networks the world over every Patch Tuesday. Obviously something has to change. But perhaps that traffic - and the huge amount of traffic from SkyDrive - will rejuvenate networks and force them to offer bigger data plans. Then there is the tempting matter of revenue share for Windows Store via carrier billing.

Windows 8 will no doubt succeed on the desktop if for no other reason than pure inertia. The question everyone is no doubt asking is, will the Windows 8 tablet change the mobile space? Or will Android on the Atom, which Intel announced at IDF, be the way forward, the real game changer that brings computing to the next billion users.

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