Microsoft will adapt the next version of its operating system for use in ARM-based tablets, but by then it will be well behind Apple and Google in tech's hottest new market.
With its announcement at CES that the next version of Windows will be geared to run on ARM's system-on-a-chip architecture, as well as existing x86 platforms from Intel and AMD, Microsoft appeared to indicate that it won't be a major presence in the tablet market for at least another year.
The news indicates Microsoft, likely due to resistance from OEM partners like Hewlett-Packard, may be abandoning its efforts to pitch Windows 7 as a tablet-capable operating system and will start from scratch with the arrival of Windows 8, which will most likely ship in late 2011 or early 2012.
The move makes sense. ARM, with its low-power requirements and light footprint, has clearly become the platform of choice for tablets. Indeed, more than 50 ARM-based slates, from Motorola, Nokia, and others, are expected to ship this year.
Microsoft's problem: Windows, in its current Windows 7 incarnation, won't run on ARM, and by the time Windows 8 arrives the company will have fallen well behind Apple and it iPad and Google's Android in one of tech's fastest growing categories.
Goldman Sachs analyst Bill Shope voiced his concerns about the situation in a research note published late last year, in which he said tablets could replace one in three PCs.
"We expect the vast majority of these devices to run the ARM architecture with either iOS or Android as the operating environment. If this is the case and our tablet forecast is anywhere near accurate, this would be the first time in three decades that a non-Wintel technology has made legitimate inroads into personal computing," wrote Shope.
On the upside for Microsoft, it appears the company has, despite the cost, bitten the bulletin and realized its previous slate strategy—shoehorning full-blown Windows onto x86-based systems that happen to look like tablets—has failed and that it must embrace a wider technology footprint.
"We look forward to even more robust collaboration between silicon partners and a broader set of partners as we work together to bring new PCs and devices – from tablets on up – to market with the next version of Windows," said Microsoft Windows Division president Steven Sinofsky, in a statement released by Microsoft at CES.
It will be up to the market to decide if Microsoft's entry into tablets on the back of Windows 8 is, in fact, better late than never.
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