The next version of Windows will run on ARM-based systems, Microsoft announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and in theory that could squeeze the operating system onto smaller and lighter form-factors. But according to at least one analyst, Microsoft will also need to make some fundamental changes to Windows' software if it wants to compete against Apple's iOS and Google Android for a chunk of the tablet market.
"I think they will likely be successful in replacing some PC notebooks and netbooks, so they will bash it out with Android tablets fighting for spare money in consumer pockets for second or third devices," Al Hilwa, an analyst with research firm IDC, wrote in a Jan. 13 e-mail to eWEEK. "But these devices will not seriously challenge the iPad because they lack its user interface fluidity and simplicity and the content portfolio, and make different compromises on weight and battery life."
Microsoft announced Jan. 5 that the next version of Windows will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia Corp. and Texas Instruments. Windows currently dominates the x86 platform used by traditional PCs, but the rise of increasingly powerful mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, largely powered by ARM chip designs, has created both a growing opportunity and a threat for the decades-old operating system franchise.
"To have a viable media tablet on Windows, Microsoft needs a year or two of software surgery on it," Hilwa wrote, "including a more touch-tailored UI, better battery life and boot-time, less-disruptive OS updates, and hardware support for smartphone-like proximity, orientation, movement, direction and location awareness."
At least on a hardware level, though, Microsoft seems to be preparing to take the battle to smaller form factors. During a Jan. 5 press conference, Windows and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky demonstrated Windows running on native ARM architecture with little evident slowdown. However, Sinofsky also suggested that Microsoft's engineers would have some issues to work through with regard to the new architecture, and that "x86 programs don't run on ARM."
Nonetheless, ARM could be an essential part of Windows' future.
"This is a big but necessary bet by Microsoft, which is effectively being forced to engage in self-inflicted disruption around the PC market," Hilwa added. "Many think this is too little, too late, and I do think Microsoft will be well-served by simpler tablets based on [Windows Phone 7] as well, but in the long run, Microsoft has to evolve the PC."
Microsoft's booth at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) featured a handful of tablets running Windows 7, but these seemed largely devoted to the Asian market. During his Jan. 5 keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took pains to emphasize Windows laptops with touch-screen functionality and smaller form factors, but never made the big tablet announcement that some in the media had been expecting.