By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:14 am
Numerous news sources are reporting that Microsoft plans to demo a version of Windows that runs on low-power ARM chips–rather than the x86 processors that Windows has been (mostly) synonymous with since its inception–at CES next month. Here are reports from Ian King and Dina Bass of Bloomberg, Don Clark and Nick Wingfield of the Wall Street Journal, and Ina Fried of All Things D.
I was startled by the news–until I thought it over, whereupon it didn’t seem so surprising any more. For decades, x86 processors (mostly from Intel and AMD) have been inside most computers that mattered, and so the fact that Windows ran on them was a virtue. (In fact, when Microsoft ported Windows NT to other CPUs in the 1990s–DEC’s Alpha and MIPS–the new versions turned out to be irrelevant, and so the company pulled the plug.)
But what happens if tablets and other new-wave computing devices become serious rivals to traditional PCs? x86 as it stands today isn’t especially well-suited to tablets, since it wasn’t designed from the ground up for energy efficiency and small form factors. (That was supposedly one reason why HP pretty much lost interest in its own Windows tablet and bought Palm’s Web OS.)
And even if Intel and AMD start to build x86 processors designed with new types of devices in mind–and they will–being x86-only lashes Windows to those companies’ product road maps. It doesn’t let Microsoft control its own destiny.
The one aspect about this news which is (very) surprising is one tidbit in Clark and Wingfield’s story: Even though Microsoft will supposedly show the ARM version of Windows, the new edition reportedly won’t be ready for a couple of years. That’s an eternity–and it means that Windows might not truly be competitive as a tablet operating system until some time in late 2013. (And even a Windows that runs on ARM chips won’t be competitive unless Microsoft radically reworks its interface and third-party developers build tablet-friendly applications.)
If all this news is accurate, it means Microsoft has been awfully slow to figure out where the computing world is going and start marching in that direction. A truly prescient Microsoft would have figured out some of this stuff back in 2006 or thereabouts–or at least by 2007, when the iPhone came out–and would be shipping Windows for ARM right now.
Speaking of the iPhone, Apple pulled off the evolution of OS X almost flawlessly over the past few years, starting in 2005, when it moved OS X from PowerPC chips to Intel ones. In 2007, it released an ARM version of OS X with an all-new interface, and everything was downsized to fit on the iPhone. In 2010, it took that iPh0ne version (now known as iOS) and created a variant for the iPad. All of this was hard work, but Apple didn’t start talking about any of it until the new versions were nearly ready to go.
It’ll be fascinating to see what happens if Windows begins to move in a similar direction–but Microsoft, in its Microsoftian fashion, starts telling the world about its plans years in advance.