Windows 8 on ARM: You can look but you can't touch

Windows 8 was shown on a few ARM-based devices at CES, but Microsoft doesn't want people playing with it before it's ready

For a touch-based interface it was awfully hard to get hold of. Microsoft's Windows 8 OS was shown on a handful of prototype ARM-based tablets at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, but almost no one was allowed to try it out.

Nvidia had three Windows 8 tablets in its booth but they were all behind glass. Texas Instruments showed a Windows 8 tablet in a meeting room off the show floor, but a reporter who asked to try it was told that wasn't permitted. Qualcomm, the third vendor of ARM-based chips working with Windows 8, wasn't showing it at all.

Representatives from all three companies said Microsoft has placed tight limits on how they can show Windows on ARM. It's apparently taking no chances that people might have a bad experience with the software before it's ready for release, which could harm its reputation.

"I think they're being a little measured because they want to make sure that when people finally see these things that it's a good experience. They have to get it right," Mike Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia's mobile business unit, said in an interview.

The Nvidia tablets being shown were based on its quad-core Tegra 3 processor. One showed the Metro user interface, another sent HD video over HDMI, and the third showed Windows 8 multitasking.

TI showed a Windows 8 tablet running on its dual-core OMAP 4470 processor. Bill Crean, a TI product manager, jiggled his finger on the screen to show the Metro interface was active. "That's the most I can do -- show you it's alive," he said, sounding almost apologetic.

Still, TI is happy with the progress of Windows 8, Crean said. Porting it to ARM chips is a big opportunity for the company, he said, which hopes to see it used in both tablets and Macbook Air-type ultrathin laptops. Windows on ARM is also a big step for Microsoft, as it could give it a serious chance at cracking the tablet market dominated by Apple's iPad.

Microsoft demonstrated the first Windows 8 code running on ARM here at CES a year ago. The OS isn't expected to be released until later this year, but many had hoped to see more of Windows on ARM here at CES, especially since it's such a significant release.

Microsoft gave out some Windows 8 test units running on x86 processors to reviewers in September, and it was happy to let a reporter try out the x86 systems in its booth this week. But it had no ARM-based devices on show at all.

Chris Flores, Microsoft director of communications for Windows, said development of the ARM version is on track and that Microsoft expects it to be released commercially at the same time as the x86 version But Microsoft wouldn't say if the Windows 8 beta due in late February will come out for both platforms.

To be fair, Crean said, Windows 8 is still in pre-beta form, so it's not surprising if Microsoft doesn't want people playing with it. ARM CEO Warren East said it's "common sense" that it will take longer to perfect the ARM version of Windows 8 than the x86 version. "Windows has grown up on x86 for the last quarter of a century," he said in an interview.

Microsoft did demonstrate Windows 8 running on ARM during CEO Steve Ballmer's keynote Monday night. But it waited until the demo had gone smoothly before telling the audience it had been showing an ARM device.

"This tablet that you've just seen me demo on is prototype hardware running on an Nvidia Tegra 3 chip," Tami Reller, the chief marketing officer for Windows, told the audience, before moving on to an x86-based system.

(Agam Shah contributed to this report.)

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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