Microsoft’s policies for the newest version of their Windows operating system (OS), Windows 8, is a disconcerting sign of what is to come with future computer hardware. In order to sell ARM-based computers with Windows 8 Hardware Certification—a near necessity for any legitimate computer manufacturer—Microsoft is forcing hardware companies to only allow Windows 8 to run on their systems. The issue was presented late last year when Linux developer Matthew Garrett noted that implementing this type of restriction using the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) would block consumers from installing other OS’s like Linux on Windows 8 hardware.
To better understand the nature of the issue at hand, it is important to note the significance of each piece of technology involved. UEFI is a new firmware standard that will soon be replacing the BIOS, a low level firmware that communicates with a computer’s components and operating system. UEFI introduces a lot of improvements over the BIOS, and also includes a new “security” feature called Secure Boot. Secure Boot is supposed to help protect users from malicious software, but instead it complicates the software deployment process for developers and the software installation process for consumers. I also mentioned ARM-based computers are the only ones being directly affected by Microsoft’s certification policies. ARM is a mobile processor architecture that many of the most popular mobile devices are built on top of today. The vast majority of mobile phones, game systems and tablet computers use ARM processors.
Now that you know a little bit more about the technology, here’s where it gets very interesting. The Windows OS is by far the most popular OS on desktop and laptop computers worldwide; however, Microsoft owns very little of the mobile market. With the announcement that Windows 8 would be the first version of Windows to support the ARM architecture, Microsoft made it very clear that they wanted to get a piece of the mobile pie. Most of the new features being implemented into Windows 8 are for the benefit of touch-screen tablet devices. What this means is that once Microsoft enters the tablet game with Windows 8, they want to ensure that consumers will have a tough time moving to a different OS by forcing them to purchase completely new hardware to do so.
Some will argue that this type of lockdown is already being done with Android devices and the iPad, so what’s new if Microsoft is doing it? Unlike other mobile operating systems, Windows 8 will also be available for desktop and laptop computers. That said, Microsoft may be motivated to create a new monopoly in the minds of consumers. Desktop and laptop hardware running Intel processors instead of ARM will still require a roundabout configuration process to allow operating systems other than Windows 8 to be installed. It is then implied that typical consumers will not be able to just pop Linux or another alternative OS into their system without seeking the help of a computer professional. This problem, compounded with Microsoft’s closed-system stance for their mobile devices, can be seen as a way to completely close off the PC market to other competitors.
It is easy to understand just how troublesome Microsoft’s new certification policy might be to the open marketplace. If Windows 8 and its UEFI implementation is allowed to set the industry standard, computer manufacturers will no longer be able to release OS-independent hardware. Consumers will not be able to install Linux or even older versions of Windows on their computers. Microsoft could succeed in creating a completely closed product ecosystem void of competition or free choice. It may all sound farfetched, but Microsoft is no stranger to monopolies.