Windows: ARMed and Dangerous

The recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) event was nothing short of a tablet extravaganza -- and it may go down as the turning point where the PC earned a new lease on life.

The arrival of the Apple iPad less than a year ago changed the world of consumer computing by bringing smartphone hardware, mobility and usability to PC-sized screens. The eight months that followed saw hardware device makers scrambling around the iPad launch and introducing challengers, largely based on the Android OS. At the 2011 CES event, Microsoft finally appeared to play its hand in this space with a strategy that seeks to fold media tablets into varieties of PCs.

The two big things that Microsoft did were, first, signal to its ecosystem partners that they need to invest aggressively in PC-based devices that resemble media tablets using the current generation of Windows. And, second, Microsoft noted that battery power help and other adaptations to mobility are on the way, as Windows will be fully ported to the ARM chip architecture. Here, I'll try to answer the question that's likely on most developers' minds about this new announcement.

Can Windows Learn New Tricks?
Some tablets demonstrated at CES featured Windows 7 and interesting lean-back designs. These devices are intended to bring the full power of Windows to the media-tablet world, in the hope that buyers will trade off the inferior battery performance and boot-up time for fuller authoring capabilities and the full software set of the PC. At the right price, these devices will likely be successful in replacing some PC notebooks and netbooks. They'll be attractive second or third machines for heavy PC users.

These devices may take some momentum away from Android tablets, but they won't seriously challenge the iPad because they lack the fluidity and simplicity of operation of the Apple UI. They also make different compromises on weight, battery life and overall accessibility compared to the iPad. These devices may attract some new applications, but are unlikely to generate a new application wave.

To have a viable media-tablet play, Microsoft needs to do a year or two of software surgery on Windows. The list of issues is long, including a touch-savvy UI, improved battery life and boot time, streamlined handling of OS updates, and hardware support for smartphone-style proximity, orientation, movement, direction and location awareness. Perhaps most important, Windows needs to run on smartphone processors, because those are what device makers need to make cost-effective, converged devices -- and because they're what Android runs on.

This is exactly what Microsoft announced at CES. In fact, Windows NT, the progenitor of Windows 7, was conceived to run on multiple-chip architectures and did so for a number of years (as with the DEC Alpha). Supporting ARM with the next generation of Windows suggests that Microsoft has reimagined the PC to be a variant of the smartphone (or vice versa). This is a big but necessary bet by Microsoft, which is effectively being forced to engage in self-inflicted disruption. The transition heralded by this shift in the Windows architecture will likely require almost every PC application to change in some way.

Why Not Windows Phone 7?
Microsoft has followed the Apple playbook in much of its Windows Phone 7 strategy, and thus it was reasonable to expect an iPad-like device based on Windows Phone 7 at CES. But Windows Phone 7 lost this battle to Windows. To understand why, it's important to remember that Microsoft's software leadership in the industry originates from its success with the PC, which, over the last three decades, has been able to adroitly generate a deep and broadly diversified portfolio of software by attracting an unprecedented platform developer ecosystem. The emergence of smartphone application platforms creates an existential challenge to the PC. Bringing Windows to ARM brings Microsoft's biggest weapon to the media-tablet battle. But will the Windows team grok the less-is-more dynamic of the smartphone world?

The Windows Phone 7 application ecosystem has quickly bloomed to 6,000 apps in three months (with minimal help from books, themes and ringtones). Now Microsoft must act to reinforce that developer ecosystem by allowing these apps to run on Windows 7 tablets right away. This will create the types of synergies between phone and tablet that Apple enjoys today.

About the Author

Al Hilwa serves as program director for IDC's Application Development Software research, where he provides expert opinion and analysis to IDC clients. He's regularly consulted by tech and business journalists and has been cited widely, including in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and USA Today. You can access more about Hilwa and his research at idc.com.

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