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Will Windows on ARM sink Windows Phone 7?

Peaceful coexistence v tribal warfare

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Analysis Microsoft insists that its upcoming ARM-friendly version of Windows is no threat to its existing smartphone OS, Windows Phone 7. Windows for ARM is strictly for "tablets on up," Redmond says. But Intel CEO Paul Otellini sees Microsoft's mobile OS future quite differently.

The tablets-on-up "Windows 8" will run on x86 chips as well as ARM, and Otellini is trying to spin it as chance for Intel to expand its mobile reach. "We have the ability to put our lowest-power Intel processors running Windows 8 – or 'next-generation Windows' – into phones, because it's the same OS stack. And I look at that as an upside opportunity for us," Otellini told reporters and analysts on Thursday after announcing Chipzilla's recent financial results.

Well, that's only an Intel opportunity if Microsoft wants it to be. Windows 8 – or "Big Windows", as Otellini calls it – will offer a touch UI that's tablet-friendly, but Redmond insists that it won't be optimized for smaller devices such as smartphones. And that's a market Otellini desparately wants to crack.

Not a chance, says Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division, who drew a firm line between "Windows 8" and Windows Phone 7 at last week's Consumer Electronics Show. "[Windows] Phone is uniquely focused on small form factor. Small screen is Windows Phone, and these [tablet] screens are Windows," he said, according to PC Pro.

That insistence jibes with Microsoft's press release announcing its ARM plan and a posting on the Windows team blog. Both use the braintrust-approved phrase "tablets on up" to describe the Windows-on-ARM target.

That rub is that the Windows Phone 7 isn't exactly off to the hottest of starts. During his keynote at CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer repeatedly – and almost plaintively – implored his keynote audience to at least look at a Windows Phone 7 smartphone. "Job number one is showing this new phone to people," he said. "What we find is that once people see the phone, they fall in love with it."

Apparently, however, few people have actually seen the thing.

Although Microsoft hasn't released customer-level sales figures, Windows Phone 7 appears to be struggling. It received a lukewarm reception at its heavily hyped launch, reportedly selling a mere 40,000 units in the US – a figure dwarfed by Android and iPhone rollouts.

What's more, the OS has a miniscule Facebook presence, and one mobile ad agency is serving more ads to Windows 98 than to Windows Phone 7 devices. That can hardly be heartwarming to Redmond decision-makers.

Not that Microsoft is admitting defeat – far from it. "We're going to continue to invest in [Windows Phone 7] aggressively in the future," Ballmer promised. He also pointed out that 20,000 registered developers have produced over 5,500 apps for the OS.

"When I get a chance to show people a Windows phone, the feedback that I hear is very, very gratifying," he said. "As people try it and discover its new features and beautiful hardware, they see the difference."

That's all well and good, but if Windows Phone 7 doesn't win the hearts and minds of the smartphone-buying world, Microsoft's plans may need to be modified, perhaps with the creation of a "small screen" version of the next-generation, ARMable Windows. Not a full-fledged Windows OS – what Otellini dubbed "Big Windows" during his conference call – but instead a "Little Windows" mobile operating system that runs little apps on both x86 and ARM and that piggybacks on the familiarity of desktop Windows.

That would be Otellini's dream outcome, seeing as how it would give Intel a foothold in the smartphone world without having to rely on MeeGo, Intel and Nokia's Moblin-Maemo mobile mashup.

Ditching Windows Phone 7 for a Little Windows for smartphones – with, of course, a drastically rejiggered UI – might also be a boon to Microsoft. Apple has shown how a single set of OS innards can work across smartphone, tablet, and desktop with its Mac OS X and iOS. Those two operating systems share the same core elements – and, with the release of the next Mac OS X, Lion, they're sure to share more than deep DNA.

However, as rational as it might be for Microsoft to unify its smartphone, tablet, and desktop OSes into one core platform that would run on both x86 and ARM, attempting to do so would ignite sectarian warfare between Redmond's entrenched mobile and desktop tribes that'd make Sunni versus Shia look like a schoolyard dust-up.

Not that Otellini would care, of course. That'd be Ballmer's problem. ®

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