Windows 8 Tablets Could Be Risky Business

Microsoft's admission that Windows on ARM tablets are best for "unmanaged environments" could lock them out of the enterprise computing market.
Windows 8 Beta: Visual Tour
Windows 8 Beta: Visual Tour
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One of the things we learned about Windows 8 with this week's Consumer Preview is that tablets that run the Windows on ARM version of the OS won't be able to plug into Microsoft's admin and security ecosystem. That's pretty stunning, given that WoA is still Windows after all. What's more, it means Microsoft may have blown a big chance to own the business tablet market.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview dropped on Feb. 29, in conjunction with a launch event that Microsoft held at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The preview version is strictly for Intel and AMD x86 platforms, but along with it Microsoft published a user guide that offered some details on WoA, which is designed to run tablets powered by chips based on ARM's system-on-a-chip reference design.

Among those details was this nugget: "Although the ARM-based version of Windows does not include the same manageability features that are in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, businesses can use these power-saving devices in unmanaged environments."

Unmanaged environments? What responsible CIO is going to allow his IT department to deploy a fleet of tablets to workers for use in an "unmanaged environment." Probably not the CIO of TJX Companies, which suffered a hack that compromised personal data of more than 45 million credit card members, or the CIO of Healthnet, which compromised the data of 1.9 million past and current customers. And I doubt that the CIO of NASA, which this week reported the theft of a laptop containing codes that control the space station now wants the space agency's employees armed with mobile devices that only work in "unmanaged environments."

[ Learn more about Windows 8. Read Windows 8 Beta: 8 Insights For IT. ]

To be sure, Microsoft and its hardware partners will offer Windows 8 on x86-based tablets that will be compatible with the full suite of Microsoft's management tools, such as System Center and Active Directory policy integration and Active Directory domains and security. But how popular will those be? In touting the benefits of ARM tablets for mobile workers, Microsoft implies that the x86 slates won't have the staying power and agility that road warriors need. "ARM-based tablets use less power than 32-bit and 64-bit devices and workers can rely on the extended uptime of these devices," the company notes in the Windows 8 beta users guide.

The danger here is that Microsoft's decision to bifurcate Windows 8 into x86 and ARM versions could result in a neither-fish-nor-fowl problem that may seriously hamper the company's efforts to become a player in consumer and business tablets. The company seems to be suggesting that Windows 8 x86 tablets will be strong on enterprise tools and lousy on key mobility features like battery life and overall snappiness, while WoA tablets will be strong on the latter but weak on security and manageability.

Faced with such a choice, won't most workers decide to stick with their iPad? The iPad may not be an administrator's dream either (although numerous third-party tools, like Citrix Receiver for iPad, Wyse's Pocket Cloud, and HLW's iTap have emerged that make it more IT friendly), but it's still an iPad.

Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place. It desperately needs to get tablets out the door in time for the 2012 holiday season or it risks falling so far behind Apple, which is expected to announce iPad 3 next week, and Google Android that it may never catch up.

That may not be enough time for it to perform all of the software engineering needed to make WoA a truly integrated member of the Windows enterprise ecosystem. But the company needs to make that a priority with the next version of WoA. Otherwise Windows 8 tablets could fall victim to the same criticism that doomed the BlackBerry PlayBook which, also stunningly, lacked integration with BlackBerry email when it debuted.

The criticism was that the PlayBook was middling at best as both a business tool and a consumer gadget. We haven't seen enough of WoA yet to know if it will be a hit with consumers. But it better be, because unless Microsoft adds some management and remote lock-down capabilities it's sure to be a miss in the enterprise.

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 26-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.

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