Microsoft's Windows 8 on ARM Could Challenge Apple iPad 3

Microsoft's Windows 8 on ARM features productivity tools and a focus on apps capable of challenging Apple's popular iPad franchise.

Amid the flurry of details from Microsoft about its upcoming Windows on ARM (for which it uses the acronym €œWOA€), at least two of them should give rival tablet makers a little pause.

First, Windows on ARM is being designed to offer users a lightweight and quick experience, more reminiscent of an iPad than a desktop. €œA WOA PC will feel like a consumer electronics device in terms of how it is used and managed,€ Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft€™s Windows and Windows Live division, wrote in a Feb. 9 posting on the corporate Building Windows 8 blog.

Second, Microsoft fully intends the Windows ARM tablets€”no matter how lightweight and slim€”as full-fledged productivity devices. €œWithin the Windows desktop, WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, code-named €˜Office 15,€™€ Sinofsky added. €œWOA will be a no-compromise product for people who want to have the full benefits of familiar Office productivity software and compatibility.€

When Microsoft issues the release version of Windows 8 sometime in late 2012, it will arrive on a combination of x86 and ARM hardware. The operating system has been designed for streamlined functionality on both tablets and traditional PCs: The start-screen of colorful tiles linked to applications is eminently touchable (all the better for tablets), and connects (via a single tap or click) to a €œtraditional€ Windows desktop with all the requisite tools for power users.

In broad strokes, those plans have been visible to the rest of the tech community for some time. However, the details of Windows on ARM proved more elusive€”at least until now. If the operating system proves viable as both an ultra-productivity and a super-mobile platform, and if the retail price is right, it could make Windows 8 a particularly strong rival in the tablet field.

But tablet dominance also hinges on a healthy app ecosystem. Microsoft is apparently working on that, as well: Mobile broadband-class drivers, printer-class drivers, GPS, sensors (accelerometer, rotation, gyro, compass and magnetometer), and Bluetooth are all capabilities available to developers creating €œMetro€-style apps for Windows on ARM.

However, Sinofsky also cautioned in the blog posting: €œWOA will not support any type of virtualization or emulation approach, and will not enable existing x86/64 applications to be ported or run.€ Virtualized or emulated software, apparently, will result in excessive consumption of system resources like battery life and CPU. €œIf you need to run existing x86/64 software, then you will be best serviced with Windows 8 on x86/64.€

Those developers who wish to port existing apps onto WOA have a couple of options. €œMany apps will be best served by building new Metro-style front ends for existing data sources or applications,€ Sinofsky wrote, €œand communicating through a Web services API.€ Those best served by this approach include €œline-of-business applications and consumer Web properties.€

The other potential solution centers on €œreusing large amounts of engine or runtime code, and surround that with a Metro-style experience,€ something that, he cautioned, would take €œsome time.€

If developers rush to the WOA platform in large numbers, it could result in an app ecosystem capable of challenging Apple€™s App Store and Google€™s Android Marketplace. In turn, combined with €œOffice 15€ and powerful hardware, that could make Windows 8 a true challenger. But a lot still depends on the ability of Microsoft (and its hardware partners) to actually execute its plans in the real world.

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