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Opinion: Will Windows on ARM challenge the iPad where Android has failed?

Will Windows on ARM challenge the iPad where Android has failed

WOA sounds like what you might tell a horse when you want it to stop, but it’s also the working acronym for Windows on ARM, which Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky recently detailed in a revealing blog post. I’m clearly going to have some fun with the acronym, but the new details of the operating system have some pretty heavy implications, too.There really are some little nuggets in Steven’s Blog post that suggest this could be a game changer on a lot of fronts.It might even make tablets as we know them obsolete.

Let’s cover some of the more interesting highlights.

ARM vs. x86

From Sinofsky’s blog post, it appears that Windows 8 clearly has two distinct configurations.The ARM side isn’t ported to the x86 side, nor the x86 side to the ARM side.Both versions of the product are optimized from the hardware layer on up for distinct usage models.If you want high portability, you go the ARM route. If you want high performance, you go the x86route.WOA won’t support virtualization, for instance.

The ARM version appears to get a unique value bundle as well, with key Office applications (except Outlook) shipping with the product.This, on paper, makes any Windows ARM tablet look more complete, at least from the standpoint of productivity apps, than either Android or iOS. (Yes, Google has a productivity suite, but it is hosted and hasn’t proven to be that competitive.)

In a way this reminds me of when Windows NT first shipped.You had a mainstream product (Windows 95) and a performance product (Windows NT).With this launch, it appears you’ll have the same separation between the WOA and x86 versions of Windows.The ARM version will be forward looking and more user focused; while the x86 version will have added capabilities attractive to either a legacy or a professional audience.

But this kind of reads like the ARM platform is the volume offering.According to Sinofsky, “In large part [the work of adapting to a new hardware platform] accrues to the x86/64 platformespecially cutting edge products, such as the new low power Atom processors, demonstrated by Intel at CES.”To me that says that x86 will get some or most, but not all, of this goodness.If ARM is now primary, likely explains why AMD is suddenly a huge ARM fan.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft markets this difference so it isn’t confusing.

ARM upgrades

WOA will also ship with a full suite of traditional Windows capabilities like printing, which has proven a bit problematic with Apple devices (it sometimes looks like Apple no longer believes printers exist).

Microsoft is also clearly building in a rather significant gaming capabilities.This has proven to be a rather compelling aspect of Android tablets based on Nvidia’sTegra 3 hardware, like the Asus Transformer Prime (checkout his video). It kind of kicks the iPad’s butt, and it appears Microsoft is aggressively going after this opportunity.Previously, Microsoft had spoken of some level of Xbox integration, and clearly the Windows Phone platform has become Microsoft’s handheld gaming alternative, much as Google and Apple have done with their platforms.

Windows on ARM will also arrive after many of the improvements to ARM that have really made the platform more competitive. Microsoft doesn’t have to carry forward as much of the legacy code either, which may actually put it (at least for this release), in a more advantageous position. Unlike Apple or Google, Microsoft engineers don’t have to worry about breaking some critical third-party app with updates.They should be able to push the performance envelope a bit harder, which is always an advantage given to the latest player to enter a technology platform segment.


One interesting comment buried in the blog post was the use of a soft GPU driver, which would present a more attractive screen when the system crashed.I’m not so sure prettier screens when the system crashes will make us all feel better.I’ve seen stranger things though, and I do think it will create an impression of refinement. Not as good as good of an impression as if it didn’t crash in the first place, but kind of an interesting improvement.As with the difference between a Lexus and a Chevy, sometimes the little things like this add up.

Microsoft is loving some ARM

One thing is absolutely clear,which is that Microsoft has gone full out with the ARM version of Windows 8.It has created a ground-up, redesigned offering that is uniquely tuned for ARM, and appears to have advantages over the x86 alternative(which is more closely related to the server platform going forward).In effect, Microsoft has recreated the separation that used to exist between Windows 95 and Windows NT in a product that will be more user focused on one side, and more professional focused on the other.

I think this reflects that Microsoft finally understands just what a big competitive risk both Apple and Google are becoming. With the right marketing and funding (Microsoft continues to massively underfund its Windows Phone effort), this thing could be an iPad killer, much like Windows 95 almost snuffed out Mac OS before Steve Jobs returned (and you’ll note Steve is unfortunately not at Apple anymore).Granted, Apple is at the top of its game this time around, and the last time it was already in trouble, but still, history does have a habit of repeating itself.

iPad killer or no, Microsoft appears to be bringing its “A” game, and if it can fully support marketing for once, the fourth quarter will be a bloody battle between the major players.It’s good news for me though; I’ll finally get a tablet with a great productivity suite.Who says a little competition isn’t a good thing?

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.