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Windows 8 diet exposes Microsoft's weak ARM

Three boxes, two tablets, no clear choice

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Microsoft has put Windows marketing on a diet, cutting the number of packaged editions from six under Windows 7 to just three main versions for its latest OS, which is due later this year.

In the past, when Microsoft announced SKUs for new versions of its PC client it was forced to justify so many editions for a simple piece of software.

This time, the tune was simpler: no justifications, just talk of simplicity.

"We have worked to make it easier for customers to know what edition will work best for them when they purchase a new Windows 8 PC or upgrade their existing PC," communications manager Brandon LeBlanc wrote here.

Microsoft has rejoined reality but might also have managed to hobble its big bet against the iPad – Windows on ARM – in the process.

Microsoft will deliver both Windows 8 for consumers and Windows 8 Pro for business users on the x86/64 architecture for tablets and PCs. What had until now been called Windows on ARM (WOA) has been renamed Windows RT – which LeBlanc indicated stands for "runtime". There is a fourth edition called Enterprise that will be sold only to customers on Software Assurance while China and "a small set of select emerging markets" will get local-language-only editions of the client.

Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro folds in the SKUs that date from Windows Vista. The role of Windows 8 Pro is clear: it's aimed at the non-consumer, non-enterprise business user. As such, it packs in Hyper-V client virtualisation, file encryption and the ability to apply group policy.

Whether a user should pick Windows 8 or Windows RT is less straightforward. When it comes to choosing either x86/64 or ARM tablets, the packages have a lot in common, while just three areas separate them. They are important areas nonetheless.

Windows RT users won't have to buy most of Microsoft's Office apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote come as standard with the software. Buyers of x86/64 tablets must still shell out. Windows RT comes with device encryption – which is missing on x86/64. On the flip side, Windows RT lacks Windows Media Player that will come standard on x86/64, while customers won't be able to install their existing PC apps on Windows RT tabs.

If Microsoft had wanted its partners or retailers to field lots of questions on why a feature is on one type of Windows tablet but not another, then it got its wish.

Crucial to all of this is the fact that Microsoft has not told us everything and that it is revealing just enough to keep partners informed. So, some of this confusion might evaporate once it becomes clear exactly what types of devices Windows 8 on ARM will be and where they'll be used. So far, neither Microsoft or ARM partners have said what devices are coming.

The feature list does offer important hints about the future of Windows 8 on ARM tablets that might make the purchasing choices of consumers a little easier. The feature list reinforces what we're coming to suspect of Windows 8 on ARM: that devices will locked down and built for specific functions, like ereaders, instead of being released as general purpose computing devices. We've been told Windows 8 for ARM won't be available for retail, so it'll only come pre-loaded on such devices.

Reinforcing this, on the business side, Microsoft seems to be keeping Windows RT out of a market that's being preserved for Windows Pro and the traditional PC form factor. Like Windows 8, Windows RT won't offer group policy management features, which are possible on the iPad and which would have made Microsoft's machines acceptable to the IT departments that must support them.

Microsoft has moved in the right direction for consumers, partners and its own marketing by cutting the number of versions of Windows sells.

It has also dropped the act of offering multiple versions of Windows SKUs in the name of "choice" when what the company was really doing was attempting to upsell consumers by segmenting the market while splitting hairs on features.

What Microsoft has failed to deliver, however, is a really clear justification of why anybody would want to buy an ARM Windows tablet instead of sticking with an x86 device. In fact, it is making the reasons for picking Windows RT harder: yes you can get Office on ARM but not on x86/64, but legacy apps run on x86/64 and not on ARM. Redmond appears to have failed to learn from the painful lessons of Office 97, when customers held out against upgrades for years.

There's a further twist: developers. Microsoft already has something called WinRT, which is supposed to be the development framework for building the Metro-UI apps for its tablets. WinRT is a set of APIs to give the tiled-Windows Metro look and interaction using C++, VB and the .NET Framework.

Giving the ARM version of Windows 8 the same name as the programming framework for building the UI of all Windows tablets suggests either that WinRT is just for ARM, or that Microsoft just wasn't thinking strategically.

LeBlanc promised more on pricing and promotional offers for Windows 8 in the "coming months", but the hard work of explaining the basics remains. ®

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