WARMer or Colder?

Here we are, over a year since we last checked in on Windows 8, and the latest aspirant to the Microsoft operating system dynasty continues its slow meander to market. Since our last installment:

  • Apple has shipped over 55 million iPads. I wonder how many versions of the iPad will ship before we see Windows 8 tablets. iPad 2 shipped since our last installment and iPad3 looks to be announced next week. A modest slip and we could be asking about iPad 4.
  • PC sales continue to shrink in absolute terms, while the Mac grows and takes share.
  • The next version of Windows Phone is confirmed to run “big Windows” (as predicted), but the messy euthanasia of Silverlight continues to cloud the future of Windows Phone 7 applications. Microsoft pledges support for Windows Phone 7 applications going forward on “big Windows” but the successive departures of not just one but two execs responsible for Windows Phone developer evangelism might give cause for skepticism. No one in that role likes to renege on promises to developers.
  • Microsoft has embarked on a quixotic crusade to get us all to describe ARM-powered Windows tablets as WOA (Windows on ARM) as opposed to WARM.  I admit I have forgotten what the politically correct and corporately decreed alternative to Wintel was back in the day.

The “consumer preview” was delivered yesterday, which is basically the first beta. There is little noteworthy new functionality in this release. The most interesting thing was the vague disclosure that “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.”

Evidently WARM tablets can’t join a Windows domain, which has major implications for a Microsoft proposition that its tablets are better suited for the enterprise than the iPad. This is probably just a schedule casualty in the enormous effort required to port to a new processor architecture (ARM support is almost certainly the long pole for Windows 8), but it could also be a convoluted attempt to advantage notebook PCs or, even more implausibly, represent a bold endorsement of Intel’s power consumption roadmap.

It means Windows 8 ARM tablets are going to be consumer devices that don’t integrate with the Microsoft enterprise infrastructure any better than the iPad, so Microsoft loses what should have been a major selling point. You will have to sacrifice battery life and go with x86 to get enterprise features and manageability. This is a big blow to Microsoft’s tablet proposition for the enterprise and WOA may be DOA as a result.  It will be fascinating to understand the decision-making behind this result.


As WARM (Windows-ARM) reportedly takes the stage in Las Vegas tomorrow, some thoughts:

  • This is “big” Windows, not yet another repackaging of Windows CE.  Remember Windows NT got its start supporting multiple CPU architectures.
  • This has huge implications for Windows Phone’s future.  It makes no sense to have two separate operating systems and application ecosystems for increasingly overlapping touch devices (phones and tablets).  It sucks for customers, developers, OEMs and is terrible for Microsoft economically to have to build and support parallel operating systems.  And Windows Phone’s road is profitability is hard to imagine.  Even if you assumed a wild leap to 20% market share, at <=$10/unit, it isn’t going to pay for the 3,000+ people working on it, never mind the marketing spend and OEM “incentives”, any time soon.  Windows Phone 8 probably is a configuration of big Windows on ARM which lets that team focus on the phone experience and not have to build an operating system top to bottom.
  • This also explains the demise of Courier – a third operating system in the mix would be exponentially worse.  Presumably the Courier application experience is being implemented on big Windows as the shell for Windows tablets.
  • While iOS is Apple’s branded operating system for touch devices, it shares the same underlying kernel, tool chains, etc. with Mac OSX.  Microsoft aspires to have a single, modular operating system that can be factored appropriately for the increasing variety of form factors.  Better modularization will also help power efficiency from a software perspective.  Expect new configurations of big Windows for TVs, settop boxes, etc.
  • In theory Windows apps can be recompiled for ARM, but in reality they all need new user interfaces for the touch world.  So much for the vaunted “applications barrier to entry”.
  • Meanwhile, the modest traction Microsoft is making with application developers for Windows Phone 7 is at risk as it is not clear whether the Windows Phone application model will be supported in the future or whether something new will be introduced.  History suggests the big Windows team will have opinions on the application model.
  • The ARM support won’t show up until Windows 8 (presumed to be 2012), which is an awfully long time to wait.  The incredibly late to materialize Windows 7-based tablets look like sacrificial offerings.  Meanwhile, analysts variously estimate Apple ships between 30 and 50 million iPads this year.  And we’ll see how whether Android 3.0 is as successful with tablets as it was with smartphones, with devices hitting the shelves shortly.  There is a huge difference between being number two and number three in  market (and I guess I should mention RIMM and WebOS for completeness and the possibility Microsoft could be number five in this market).  Microsoft might consider stopping spotting multiple competitors multi-year leads in some of these markets.  But maybe the company just likes a good challenge.
  • Needless to say, Microsoft is in a tough position.  Getting to a single operating system and single application model is desirable for the long term, but the degree of difficulty to get there is incredibly high being a year or more from shipping product, having a full slate (yuck, yuck) of competitors in the market and potentially Osborning the current Windows Phone along the way.
  • But it could be worse – you could be Intel.  Microsoft porting to ARM is a serious indictment of Intel’s power efficiency roadmap.  Historically, Intel-Microsoft executive meetings have had colorful moments and I’d pay to see video of some of the recent ones.  I do expect Microsoft to take the high road and throw Intel a conciliatory bone or two, deeming the next generation of Atom chips to be “pretty good (for you guys…)”.  And while client-focused, this move also improves Microsoft’s options for supporting ARM-based servers in the future, making this a double-barreled nightmare for Intel.  But at least they control their own destiny with that MeToo, er, MeeGo operating system.

Will be fun watching to see how Redmond plays this one.