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Windows 10: Bye Intel, hello ARM

Posted: 14 Oct 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Windows 10  tablet  Surface  Windows 

Company execs have said they won't share more details about Windows 10 mobile devices until early next year. In the meantime, the difference between a large smartphone and a small tablet has become increasingly arbitrary, support for call functionality excluded. Will Microsoft support both Intel and ARM for tablets and smartphones but only Intel for 2-in-1s and more conventional PCs? Will some 2-in-1 devices still use ARM chips, like the Surface RT and Surface 2 have?

2. No ARM-based Windows tablet has succeeded.

To understand where Microsoft might go next with ARM tablets, it's useful to look at what's failed so far.

Surface RT, Microsoft's original ARM tablet, sold significantly below internal targets, leading to a nearly $1 billion write-down. But according to a teardown analysis performed by IHS iSuppli, Surface RT tablet generated a higher profit per unit than a comparable version of Apple Inc.'s wildly successful iPad.

The company hasn't revealed any sales figures for Surface 2, but earnings reports indicate the product family has remained unprofitable. Microsoft's second ARM tablet occasionally sells out through certain channels, but given the financial sting Microsoft took from the first Surface, the tight availability likely has more to do with more realistic inventory management than a surge in sales.

Other manufacturers have altogether abandoned ARM-based Windows tablets. A number of affordable new Windows tablets have recently hit the market, but all of them use Intel chips and run the full version of Windows 8.1. OEMs continue to put ARM chips in Android tablets and some Chromebooks, but they've avoided Windows RT like it's some kind of malware.

3. Windows on ARM has failed due to hardware, software and marketing.

The failures listed in the previous item owe to a variety of bad Microsoft decisions. With Windows RT, Microsoft was trying to forge a presence in the tablet market, but it released hardware that reminded people of laptops. Compounding matters, the company saddled its ARM devices with an OS that lacked not only support from third-party investors (which naturally takes time to build up), but also polished first-party apps.

The omission of great first-party apps was particularly damning. Sometime in the next few months, Microsoft is expected to finally reveal a touch-first version of Office for Windows tablets. Had those apps been available when Windows RT launched, the OS might have been more warmly received. Developers might have been more inspired, since they would have had an example of what a superlative Modern-style touch app should look like.

Instead, Microsoft awkwardly inserted a desktop UI in Windows RT that allowed the OS to run existing desktop versions of Office but otherwise locked out legacy apps. This exacerbated confusion over whether Windows RT was for tablets or small laptops, a point that Microsoft's marketing, with its poor differentiation between Win RT and the full version of Windows 8, seemed incapable of resolving.

Can Microsoft avoid these issues with future ARM tablets? For more, see item 5.

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