Microsoft reps have been tight-lipped about the future of Windows on ARM devices but the company has many reasons to remain invested in non-Intel architectures.
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Microsoft's traditionally cozy relationship with Intel at times has appeared chilly over the last few years, with the former investing in ARM processors and the latter making chips for devices that run Google's Android and Chrome OS.
But these days, hints of tension between the two companies have mostly disappeared. PC sales have stabilized, keeping Intel and Microsoft's paths tightly linked. And thanks to new classes of super-efficient Intel chips, the Windows catalogue now includes powerful, ultras-slim 2-in-1s at the high end and a variety of cheap but surprisingly capable PCs and tablets at the low end.
The reversed dynamic raises a question: What's become of Microsoft's ambitions for devices that use ARM processors?
Indeed, "Wintel's" resurgence isn't the only reason to question Microsoft's investment in ARM devices. Just last week, the company confirmed it will continue to make Surface Pro devices but declined to answer any specific questions about ARM-based models. From Windows RT's failure to a recent report that Microsoft plans to focus Surface development around Intel chips, little about Microsoft's recent ARM efforts inspires confidence. What do we know about Microsoft's strategy for ARM devices, and what it will mean for customers? Here are seven observations about Microsoft's ARM agenda.
1. Windows 10 will run on at least some ARM devices -- but which ones? Microsoft reps have abstractly confirmed that Windows has a future on ARM devices, but outside of the obvious fact that the company will have to support ARM-based smartphones, it's not clear what this means.
Why are ARM-based Windows smartphones an obvious play? A year ago, Nokia was the only company committed to Windows smartphones. But, by eliminating license costs and relaxing hardware requirements, Microsoft recently convinced more OEMs to join in. The hardware move enabled OEMs to easily take successful Android devices and basically re-release them as Windows Phone options -- a strategy HTC followed with its One (M8). Intel's mobile chips have come a long way, but ARM remains the smartphone standard. Unless Microsoft intends to eliminate one of OEMs' easiest means of producing Windows smartphones, at least some flavor of Windows 10 had better run on ARM.
Microsoft has struggled with ARM-based tablets, such as its Surface 2.
But will Microsoft support ARM beyond smartphones? Microsoft executive VP and OS head Terry Myerson confirmed last month that Windows 10 will replace both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.1. Does this mean that an ARM-compatible version of Windows 10 for smartphones might be used for tablets as well, somewhat like Apple uses iOS for both iPhones and iPads? That's the outcome rumors have painted for months, but where will Microsoft draw the lines?
Company execs have said they won't share more details about Windows 10 mobile devices until early next year. In the meantime, the difference between a large smartphone and a small tablet has become increasingly arbitrary, support for call functionality excluded. Will Microsoft support both Intel and ARM for tablets and smartphones but only Intel for 2-in-1s and more conventional PCs? Will some 2-in-1 devices still use ARM chips, like the Surface RT and Surface 2 have?
2. No ARM-based Windows tablet has succeeded. To understand where Microsoft might go next with ARM tablets, it's useful to look at what's failed so far.
Surface RT, Microsoft's original ARM tablet, sold significantly below internal targets, leading to a nearly $1 billion write-down. The company hasn't revealed any sales figures for Surface 2, but earnings reports indicate the product family has remained unprofitable. Microsoft's second ARM tablet occasionally sells out through certain channels, but given the financial sting Microsoft took from the first Surface, the tight availability likely has more to do with more realistic inventory management than a surge in sales.
Other manufacturers have altogether abandoned ARM-based Windows tablets. A number of affordable new Windows tablets have recently hit the market, but all of them use Intel chips and run the full version of Windows 8.1. OEMs continue to put ARM chips in Android tablets and some Chromebooks, but they've avoided Windows RT like it's some kind of malware.
3. Windows on ARM has failed due to hardware, software, and marketing. The failures listed in the previous item owe to a variety of bad Microsoft decisions. With Windows RT, Microsoft was trying to forge a presence in the tablet market, but it released hardware that reminded people of laptops. Compounding matters, the company saddled its ARM devices with an OS that lacked not only support from third-party investors (which naturally takes time to build up), but also polished first-party apps.
The omission of great first-party apps was particularly damning. Sometime in the next few months, Microsoft is expected to finally reveal a
Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio
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