Microsoft has released a lot of information about Windows 8 over the last few days, but one that surprised me is that Windows 8 ARM-based tablets and notebooks won’t be arriving until mid-2013. With the ARM-based mobile industry changing so quickly, it’s easy to take a cynical approach to Windows 8’s hopeless delay. Who knows what will be around in 2013. Will tablets still be popular? Will tower-based desktop still exist? Will we have computers in our brains? Who knows, but while I was and still am cynical about Windows 8 on tablets, now I understand that Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 as an ecosystem, and questioning its placement on current crops of hardware is pointless.
Microsoft Doesn’t Make Hardware
Just in case you forgot, Microsoft does not make the stuff that their software goes into. The great thing about software is if you make it right, it doesn’t matter what trends are making their way through the crowd. While software is important to the user experience of a device, software is typically malleable enough (especially Microsoft software…yes I’m talking to you Apple) to move from configuration to configuration. Saying that Windows 8 will be irrelevant to the desktop user is like saying that Android 4.0 will be irrelevant to someone with an LG Ally. Many are tossing their old desktops out for notebooks and tablets. Businesses are only just now upgrading from XP to Windows 7, while all initially thumb their noses at new software until it becomes more mature. Gamers or High Performance Enthusiasts are the minority, and I’m one of them. Honestly I am cool with Microsoft not focusing on us, and its cool that Microsoft will give us the ability to turn off Metro UI.
Saying that Windows 8 tablets will be irrelevant is like saying a Pentium 4 with Windows 7 is irrelevant. There’s a lot that is going to change in the next year, especially in the hardware sector, but what is most important is that software will change very little. Android and iOS will grow, certainly, but I don’t expect that either platform will be working towards anything except making x86, as a whole, irrelevant. Microsoft is making the smart move by making its software work cross architecture.
Wait, Did You Say ARM Notebooks?
The announcement of ARM notebooks hit a note in my brain for the last couple days. I’ve been trying to figure out how such products would actually be useful, and then I realized what Microsoft is doing. Microsoft isn’t making software so that it can capitalize on the next new fad. Microsoft is creating a completely new ecosystem.
Microsoft is betting its future on ARM. Honestly, it’s a good bet. The one thing that I learned from researching one of my earlier articles is that x86 CPUs are way more powerful than the average consumer needs. Only those on the bleeding edge of technology need i5 or i7 processors. The average user could get away with an Intel i3 or, heck, even an AMD A4 or Intel Pentium processor will do what most people do on their computers. Even then, that compute power is only needed because x86 Windows and Adobe Flash take so much horsepower for seemingly no reason. The only reason why i5 or i7 processors are needed (along with 8-16GB of RAM) is because Adobe’s editing software is overly bloated. Yes there’s a lot of cool stuff to be done on Photoshop, etc., but there’s certainly an argument for suggesting that software optimization could limit the need for such hardware. And yes, I know, there will always be a market for ridiculous hardware for the server market, 3D rendering studios, etc., but once again, you can always use Windows 8 for x86 for your creative workstations.
The fact of the matter is, most of your Windows users write documents, edit spreadsheets, play Facebook games, check e-mail, read news articles, and browse the web. Those users could certainly benefit from a simple, app-based interface on an ARM based platform with long-life batteries (I’m hoping for 12-16 hours, but we’ll see). Also if their tablet, phone, notebook, and x86 desktop (if they still have one) run the same interface and are connected via Live services, all the better. If, in the future, that user has only ARM based phones, tablets, and laptops, then that user can even have the same apps across all three. With ARM-notebooks, we’ll even start seeing touchscreens on notebooks again, and perhaps even *gasp* a re-birth of the Tablet-PC (which I am personally excited about).
And here’s the important point: Yes ARM processors will become more powerful. Yes iOS and Android will become more powerful and have more capability packed into their App store. Yes x86 will lose relevance in the face of the onslaught that is the ARM architecture. But Microsoft is positioning itself as an entity that can move and evolve with the changing trends of hardware. Unlike Apple that has to peace-meal integration between iOS and MacOS and unlike Google which is completely stuck in the phone/tablet market, Microsoft is building a software ecosystem that will comprise of classic x86 machines, ARM notebooks, tablets and smartphones and keep them together with a unified interface and suite of software and services.
So, Here’s To Hoping Microsoft Won’t Screw It Up…
Steve Ballmer wasn’t kidding when he said that they are taking risks with Windows 8. I have been cynical in the recent past, but I’m remaining hopefully optimistic that the platform Microsoft is creating will actually work. The fact that Microsoft doesn’t make hardware means that they can change and evolve based on current trends, even though their software will be unfortunately late. However, it does give the tablet market some time to settle down, and does give tablet owners some time to realize the limitations of their devices and the lack of interoperability. Hopefully Microsoft will capitalize on the complaints of Android owners, build on the needs of Windows upgraders, and possibly lure a few away from Apple with the newly found security of a sandboxed platform.
I’m also looking forward to the kind of innovation that we might see from hardware OEMs when considering ARM based notebooks. I’m hoping for ridiculous battery life, slim and sleek cases, quick and reliable SSDs, touchscreens in various forms, and hopefully even Tablet-PC like ARM notebooks. But it’s nice to see Microsoft attempting to make ARM and x86 work together and play nice.
The one potential problem with an ARM based Windows is a lack of apps. Just as Ballmer said many years ago, “developers, developers, developers.” By 2013, Android and iOS will only have larger app stores. Unless Microsoft gets on the bandwagon and gets developers working on their platform, it won’t succeed. Perhaps that’s the strategy behind releasing the developer preview more than a year before release. Maybe that’s the strategy behind releasing their app store along with a public beta in February. Maybe that’s the strategy behind the 2013 release date. Let’s just hope there’s strategy behind it.