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Microsoft has released a lot of information about Windows 8 over the last few days, but one that surprised me is that Windows 8 ARM-based tablets and notebooks won’t be arriving until mid-2013. With the ARM-based mobile industry changing so quickly, it’s easy to take a cynical approach to Windows 8’s hopeless delay. Who knows what will be around in 2013. Will tablets still be popular? Will tower-based desktop still exist? Will we have computers in our brains? Who knows, but while I was and still am cynical about Windows 8 on tablets, now I understand that Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 as an ecosystem, and questioning its placement on current crops of hardware is pointless.

Microsoft Doesn’t Make Hardware

Just in case you forgot, Microsoft does not make the stuff that their software goes into. The great thing about software is if you make it right, it doesn’t matter what trends are making their way through the crowd. While software is important to the user experience of a device, software is typically malleable enough (especially Microsoft software…yes I’m talking to you Apple) to move from configuration to configuration. Saying that Windows 8 will be irrelevant to the desktop user is like saying that Android 4.0 will be irrelevant to someone with an LG Ally. Many are tossing their old desktops out for notebooks and tablets. Businesses are only just now upgrading from XP to Windows 7, while all initially thumb their noses at new software until it becomes more mature. Gamers or High Performance Enthusiasts are the minority, and I’m one of them. Honestly I am cool with Microsoft not focusing on us, and its cool that Microsoft will give us the ability to turn off Metro UI.

Saying that Windows 8 tablets will be irrelevant is like saying a Pentium 4 with Windows 7 is irrelevant. There’s a lot that is going to change in the next year, especially in the hardware sector, but what is most important is that software will change very little. Android and iOS will grow, certainly, but I don’t expect that either platform will be working towards anything except making x86, as a whole, irrelevant. Microsoft is making the smart move by making its software work cross architecture.

Wait, Did You Say ARM Notebooks?

The announcement of ARM notebooks hit a note in my brain for the last couple days. I’ve been trying to figure out how such products would actually be useful, and then I realized what Microsoft is doing. Microsoft isn’t making software so that it can capitalize on the next new fad. Microsoft is creating a completely new ecosystem.

Microsoft is betting its future on ARM. Honestly, it’s a good bet. The one thing that I learned from researching one of my earlier articles is that x86 CPUs are way more powerful than the average consumer needs. Only those on the bleeding edge of technology need i5 or i7 processors. The average user could get away with an Intel i3 or, heck, even an AMD A4 or Intel Pentium processor will do what most people do on their computers. Even then, that compute power is only needed because x86 Windows and Adobe Flash take so much horsepower for seemingly no reason. The only reason why i5 or i7 processors are needed (along with 8-16GB of RAM) is because Adobe’s editing software is overly bloated. Yes there’s a lot of cool stuff to be done on Photoshop, etc., but there’s certainly an argument for suggesting that software optimization could limit the need for such hardware. And yes, I know, there will always be a market for ridiculous hardware for the server market, 3D rendering studios, etc., but once again, you can always use Windows 8 for x86 for your creative workstations.

The fact of the matter is, most of your Windows users write documents, edit spreadsheets, play Facebook games, check e-mail, read news articles, and browse the web. Those users could certainly benefit from a simple, app-based interface on an ARM based platform with long-life batteries (I’m hoping for 12-16 hours, but we’ll see). Also if their tablet, phone, notebook, and x86 desktop (if they still have one) run the same interface and are connected via Live services, all the better. If, in the future, that user has only ARM based phones, tablets, and laptops, then that user can even have the same apps across all three. With ARM-notebooks, we’ll even start seeing touchscreens on notebooks again, and perhaps even *gasp* a re-birth of the Tablet-PC (which I am personally excited about).

And here’s the important point: Yes ARM processors will become more powerful. Yes iOS and Android will become more powerful and have more capability packed into their App store. Yes x86 will lose relevance in the face of the onslaught that is the ARM architecture. But Microsoft is positioning itself as an entity that can move and evolve with the changing trends of hardware. Unlike Apple that has to peace-meal integration between iOS and MacOS and unlike Google which is completely stuck in the phone/tablet market, Microsoft is building a software ecosystem that will comprise of classic x86 machines, ARM notebooks, tablets and smartphones and keep them together with a unified interface and suite of software and services.

So, Here’s To Hoping Microsoft Won’t Screw It Up…

Steve Ballmer wasn’t kidding when he said that they are taking risks with Windows 8. I have been cynical in the recent past, but I’m remaining hopefully optimistic that the platform Microsoft is creating will actually work. The fact that Microsoft doesn’t make hardware means that they can change and evolve based on current trends, even though their software will be unfortunately late. However, it does give the tablet market some time to settle down, and does give tablet owners some time to realize the limitations of their devices and the lack of interoperability. Hopefully Microsoft will capitalize on the complaints of Android owners, build on the needs of Windows upgraders, and possibly lure a few away from Apple with the newly found security of a sandboxed platform.

I’m also looking forward to the kind of innovation that we might see from hardware OEMs when considering ARM based notebooks. I’m hoping for ridiculous battery life, slim and sleek cases, quick and reliable SSDs, touchscreens in various forms, and hopefully even Tablet-PC like ARM notebooks. But it’s nice to see Microsoft attempting to make ARM and x86 work together and play nice.

The one potential problem with an ARM based Windows is a lack of apps. Just as Ballmer said many years ago, “developers, developers, developers.” By 2013, Android and iOS will only have larger app stores. Unless Microsoft gets on the bandwagon and gets developers working on their platform, it won’t succeed. Perhaps that’s the strategy behind releasing the developer preview more than a year before release. Maybe that’s the strategy behind releasing their app store along with a public beta in February. Maybe that’s the strategy behind the 2013 release date. Let’s just hope there’s strategy behind it.

While researching the ASUS Transformer Prime, I came across some interesting information and an interesting trend. While reviews for the tablet are fantastic, the only thing that is keep potential buyers away is the promise of a Windows 8 version later next year. To me it seems like begging the question, since Windows 8 on tablets will be a different experience than Windows 8 on a desktop, and here are a few reasons why:

Legacy in Limbo

The reason Windows 8 has any traction at all is because it contains the name of the most widely used operating system in the world. People have seen bits and pieces of Windows 8, including the classic (its odd to be using this word for this…) Windows 7 desktop as well as the new MetroUI based interface. Metro means touchscreen, Classic desktop means Windows, therefore win?

Well the problem is that Windows 8 will be running its ARM based version on tablets. ARM is a different software architechture than x86 (typical desktop varient) and standard Windows programs will not run on it without some sort of emulation. Unfortunately, Microsoft is not willing or able to make such an emulation work, so there goes legacy support in Windows 8 ARM edition.

Oh sure, Microsoft will have mobile versions of its Microsoft Office Suite, your standard collection of Windows Live software, and an App catalog that is slowly but surely gaining some steam (currently around 30,000 apps). But both Android and iOS have hundreds of thousands of apps available, including Office-like apps, apps with photo/movie editing and organization and also apps with cloud storage.  To make matters worse, some reports have been confirming that Microsoft will be ditching the classic desktop in the ARM Windows 8. That’s not necessarily bad since Metro works better with touchscreens and there will be no need for the classic desktop if they won’t support legacy programs. But it all seems kinda familiar.

We’ve Seen This Before

Tablets are the very incarnation of chaos in the previously well groomed computer market. The top players of yore, Microsoft, Intel, and to a lesser extent PC manufactures, are finding themselves in a battle against some very fiesty young upstarts. ARM and Google are effectively trying to capture the throne held by Microsoft and Intel (Note: Apple is as usual, simply being Apple. Even though they sell more tablets, ARM and Google’s penchant for liscensing they’re products and patents makes them a more compelling target for assuming the power of Microsoft and Intel’s dominating throne) and doing a very good job of it. If Microsoft and Intel hope to get into the tablet game, they need to do something quick.

However, Microsoft seems to be hinging their success on the same mistaken assumptions that Intel is: that in the game of tablets, x86 name brands matter. Intel thinks that if they get something  roughly comparable to their competition, then the big name “Intel” will make it sell better, but for tablets it won’t. When you think of Atom, you think of slow, clunky, single core processors that can’t do anything.

When Microsoft originally released Windows Phone 7, the hope was that the unique UI, name brand, and plethora of Microsoft services would put it in striking distance of Android, while its multi-liscence approach would allow it to beat iPhone. Unfortunately neither worked out, and Windows Phone 7 has recently slid to a paltry 4% marketshare. This debacle has proven that name does matter, but that the mobile market and desktop market are two completely different animals. Also specs matter (no dual core smartphones = fail), functionality is functionality (who cares if it’s Microsoft Office vs. QuickOffice), and app stores count (developers developers developers!)

Now Microsoft is trying it again, and I’m seeing the same response to Windows 8 as I saw in the pre-Windows Phone 7 times. With the promise of Windows comes the promise of the legacy, and the promise of interconnectivity. Microsoft delivered neither with Windows Phone 7, and I don’t expect it’ll be any different with Windows 8. To me, at least, Windows 8 for ARM looks like Windows Phone 7 Honeycomb edition. It’s going to be difficult for Windows to carve out any marketshare in a market that is dominated by Apple and at a hard fought 2nd place, Google. All the 3rd party players are dying off, and Microsoft would be well advised to notice that. There is hope for the platform, but Microsoft needs to do what they failed to do with Windows Phone 7.

No Lonely Devices

One thing that Apple has over everybody else right now is interconnectivity. All Apple devices work together quite fluidly. iPhone, iPad, iPod all connect and sync through iTunes which is on your Mac products and all of these work together with Time Capsules, iCloud, and can send content (even live content now) to your AppleTV. Apple has created a fantastically connected world around all of its devices. Microsoft has unfortunately left all of this innovation to the 3rd party hardware manufacturers. As a result, there is very little interconnectivity between Windows devices, even among different Windows computers.

The most disappointing thing about Windows Phone 7 was the lack of interconnectivity. Wireless, or heck, even wired syncing? Nope. How do you put stuff on it? By using it like a flash drive or trying to figure it out through Windows Media Player’s ancient syncing system. Live services don’t all sync up between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7. Not even Office really works more than as a basic level word processor and document reader. And where the heck is the tight Outlook integration? Odder still is the fact that Windows Phone 7 was designed with sorta-kinda Xbox integration. It’s weird that Microsoft would leverage its gaming platform as being the most important feature while the productivity side of Windows suffers. Customers looking for a Blackberry replacement ended up looking more towards iPhone.

Microsoft has the potential to leverage it’s name as the maker of a productivity machine, and that is the only way it will  succeed. We’ve seen to many tablets designed to be content consumers (Kindle Fire anyone?) and we need a fresh take on the tablet OS. Having the same interface between Windows 8 x86, Windows 8 ARM, and Windows Phone 7 is noble, but only if it is paired with a suite of interconnected services, software, and content clouds. Software isn’t going to happen, content clouds will most likely be third party, and while Microsoft has the services already, they just need to impliment integration between the three platforms. Even if Microsoft gets Live, Outlook, and Office interconnectivity right, will it be enough? With an app store of only around 30,000, I unfortunately doubt it.

For sure, Windows 8 will sell at first because people are curious and interested and the power of the name “Windows” will bring thoughts of Legacy and interoperability. But then just like Windows Phone 7, it will peter out and fall off the mountain where Apple and Google reside.

I’m really hoping that Microsoft can pull it off, but so far an Ice Cream Sandwich looks a lot tastier.