Windows 8 tablets: A recipe for confusion?

Microsoft is offering users a choice between Metro and the traditional Windows desktop on ARM tablets.

Is Microsoft headed for disaster later this year when Windows 8 debuts on tablet devices some of which will not be able to run Windows 7 desktop apps, despite supporting an optional desktop interface? That's what some critics are wondering after looking at another reportedly successful launch of Apple's latest iPad and the comparatively lackluster popularity of competing slates such as the BlackBerry PlayBook, and a host of Android-based devices.

The last, best hope for serious competition to the iPad, the argument goes, may come from Windows 8 tablets sporting Microsoft's new touch-friendly Metro-style interface. The problem is that Windows 8 tablets could confuse and frustrate prospective tablet buyers.

The ARM Debate

A number of Windows 8 tablets are expected to use ARM-based chips instead of x86/x64 chips, which Windows typically relies on. These devices will carry the Windows name but since they are ARM- and not x86/x64-based they won't be backward compatible with any software that runs now on Windows 7.

But Windows on Arm (WOA) tablets will still come with the Windows desktop. You'll see the familiar Windows desktop, but you won't be able to download and run any of the legacy programs you'd expect. Meanwhile, x86/x64-based Windows 8 tablets, will be able to run anything that works on Windows 7 under Windows 8.

This could definitely cause chaos for the average person walking into a Best Buy and needing to learn the differences between legacy-friendly tablets and Metro-focused tablets using ARM chips. It's not clear how Microsoft and its partners plan to handle this issue, but they'll need to make a simple differentiation between the two tablet types. One possibility would be to emphasize the touch-centric features of ARM tablets by calling them "Windows 8 To Go" or some other mobile-friendly message, while x86/x64 tablets might be called touch-enabled slate PCs.

A Challenging Choice

Microsoft could have avoided this issue by making ARM tablets Metro-style only, but the company felt it was wiser to offer users the flexibility of choosing between Metro and the traditional desktop instead. To show off that flexibility, the company plans to offer desktop versions of Office 15 on WOA tablets.

So unless x86/x64 tablets are headed for the enterprise market where using custom-built legacy software is a huge issue, marketing efforts from Microsoft and its partners may determine whether Metro-style tablets become a frustrating buying experience.

Then again, this is only an issue if a large number of tablet buyers are looking to make heavy use of the  Windows desktop. The traditional Windows interface may be handy when you have to get work done in a pinch or if you find a tablet powerful enough to replace your laptop. But given the popularity of the desktop-lacking iPad, the traditional Windows interface may simply be a nice addition to Windows 8 tablets. Chances are most users will be more interested in using tablets for Angry Birds, Facebook, and Flipboard, than spreadsheets, presentations, and text documents.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) on Twitter and Google+, and with Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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