ARM-based Windows 8 tablets: Signs point to vaporware

Apple's iPad sales have zoomed, narrowing Microsoft's tablet opportunity. So where is the fabled ARM-based Windows tablet?

Apple's blow-away quarter can be sliced and diced a zillion ways -- Mac are sales up 26 percent over last year, with non-Apple PC sales in the U.S. down 9.2 percent; Apple's unit sales (Mac plus iPad) now exceed Hewlett-Packard's total unit sales, making Apple by far the largest PC manufacturer. More iPads sold last quarter than desktop PCs, for heaven's sake.

In September at its Build conference for Windows developers, Microsoft showed its iPad alternative: ARM-based tablets running the forthcoming Windows 8. So where are they? Microsoft has released the Windows 8 developer preview for public download, but it works only on Intel x86-based PCs. PC makers have also shown just x86-based Windows 8 systems; there are no ARM-based devices out there. You'd think prototypes of ARM-based Windows 8 tablets would have been trumpeted at the Consumer Electronics Show and other venues by ARM chipmakers and Microsoft to give the Windows faithful a reason to not get an iPad today but wait for Windows 8.

No analysts I know have placed their hands on such a beast; nobody who's talking about Windows 8 on ARM has actually put it through any paces.

Most telling, a couple of weeks ago Reuters intervewed ARM CEO Warren East. He suggested ARM-based Windows 8 systems were not coming any time soon: "We've waited a long time for this to happen. Another six months, another 12 months doesn't matter. I'd much rather wait however long it takes to get a quality experience than compromise."

Perhaps the apparent delay is a response to the increasing signs that ARM-based Windows 8 tablets will offer less than x86-based ones. For example, Microsoft has said that Windows 8 ARM tablets won't be able to multiboot. And Microsoft has confirmed that ARM-based Windows 8 tablets will run only the new Metro apps, not "legacy" Windows 7 apps as the x86 version of Windows 8 will.

A year ago Steve Ballmer showed a demo of PowerPount 2010 apparently running on an Nvidia Tegra ARM processor, and Microsoft has promised that Office will be able to run on ARM-based Windows 8 machines. It just hasn't defined what kind of Office we should expect. Perhaps something closer to Office Web Apps? Or the barely functional Office it's produced for Windows Phone? Hard to say.

With Intel's Ultrabook specification, svelte, low-power laptops and tablets should be available when Windows 8 ships. So users who want the whole Microsoft experience and compatibility will have options to eat their cake and eat it too on x86. If ARM-based Windows 8 tablets are essentially half-Windows tablets, and full-Windows x86 tablets are available, what's the point of an ARM-based Windows 8 tablet? Longer battery life due to ARM's better power efficiency just doesn't seem enough of a reason to go for the half-Windows experience, especially given Intel's efforts to close that power-efficiency gap.

The signs point to suboptimal x86 tablets coming this fall running Windows 8. (Given the fact that the actual Ultrabooks offered thus far don't fulfill the Intel specification's promise, I suspect the same will be true for PC makers' Windows 8 tablet offerings.) And ARM-based Windows 8 tablets may still be nowhere in sight. Oh, and even more people will be using iPads.

This story, "ARM-based Windows 8 tablets: Signs point to vaporware," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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