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Windows on ARM: leading from the rear

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Analysis Bill Gates may have long departed, but he's still in charge at Microsoft, in spirit at least. Every year Chairman Bill would return from a "reading week" – I prefer to think that Bill got lost on his annual trip to the shopping mall – having noticed that there were lots of newfangled TVs / watches / phones / pacemakers about, and none of them were running Microsoft software.

When he returned to HQ, the cry would go round that something must be done. The result was invariably a new OS project. This time, it's different – and Microsoft has decided to let someone else do the hard work. Microsoft will port full-blown Windows to ARM's processors. The OEMs therefore have the headache of providing driver support.

A non-Intellic Windows is not exactly earth-shattering news – Microsoft designed NT to be portable back in the days when it wanted people to buy it because it was a less anarchic and unruly version of Open Systems (aka Unix). Microsoft then spent much of the 1990s developing and supporting Windows on non-Intel hardware, just to prove how portable it was. The big vendors who signed up to a native non-Intel Windows and tried (with varying degrees of persistence) to make a business out of this included the biggest names in the industry: SGI, HP, IBM, and DEC (later Compaq).

DEC held out the longest, before chucking in the towel a decade ago. By then, potential customers had long since stopped caring about the portability of NT. It was a headache enough supporting two Intel versions of Windows, plus whatever really did the grunt work in the back office – a Unix box, or an old mini, or something even larger.

I find this announcement interesting for two bets that Microsoft is making about the market.

The first is that the WinARM handhelds will burgeon, so they more closely resemble the specifications of a laptop. They'll absolutely have to, Intel insisted in a most amusing press conference last week, or they'll stay unsold.

The other bet is that somehow people will prefer using the full heft of the Windows UI – cruft and all – on a portable device. These devices will be tablets and something vaguely called "cloudbooks" – which are cheap notebooks or netbooks by any other name.

I would say one of these punts is better than the other – but I really have my doubts about them both. You can spot the obvious common factor – it's what prompted the move.

"Gee," said the Redmond executives. "Apple has cut down its full-blown desktop OS and nobody noticed. Why can't we do the same?"

So let's examine the first assumption: that people need hods of computing muscle, only in a form factor that's not really a laptop. We've been round this block before – it's really the Ghost of Chairman Gates again, insisting that Tablet PCs are where the market is heading. Unveiling the Tablet in 2001, Gates insisted it would become "the most popular form of PC within five years." They were expensive, and brought all the inconvenience of a laptop to something that (at times) pretended not to be a laptop. No wonder that found such a very small niche.

Intel insists that high-power chips will be needed because we all do "content creation" on the move. Again, wouldn't a successful Tablet PC niche have proved that there's a demand for that? Wouldn't the iPad, which is primarily a content viewer, have flopped for the same reason?

(Having used Windows 7 on an old-ish Atom netbook recently – albeit one with 2GB of RAM – I can't quite see what the fuss is about. It works pretty well.)

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