Analysts Knock Heads Over ARM-Based 'Windows Next'

Analysts are thinking out loud in the wake of Microsoft's Windows ARM announcement last week.

Microsoft had explained that its next-generation Windows will run on system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture from AMD, Intel and ARM. The news was delivered at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but it elicited lots more questions than answers.

On Wednesday, analysts at Directions on Microsoft, a consultancy that includes former Microsoft executives, held a talk with the press on the subject, which was titled, "making sense of Windows on ARM." The panel talk included Directions on Microsoft analysts Michael Cherry, Wes Miller and Rob Sanfilippo -- all discussing the implications of Microsoft's CES announcement.

Microsoft's relations with ARM go way back -- about 13 years, according to a CNET interview with Warren East, ARM's CEO. Microsoft is a long-time high-level ARM licensee, Cherry said. ARM-based devices run on Microsoft's Windows CE componentized operating system, which was renamed by Microsoft as "Windows Embedded Compact." Cherry said that Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system, released onto hardware in October, is based on Windows Embedded Compact. ARM architecture is also leveraged by mobile OS providers such as Google (Android) and Apple (iOS) for those mobile phone products.

Microsoft has already built into Windows the capability to move to other architectures. It's possible due to the hardware abstraction layer in Windows, also known as "HAL," which came to the fore with Windows NT, Cherry explained. HAL has allowed Windows to be ported to various hardware platforms, such as Alpha, MIPS, PowerPC, Itanium and Itanium 2, and x64, Cherry said. He added that with the exception of Itanium and x64, products based on those hardware platforms haven't been successful in the marketplace, although the technical integration worked.

Cherry predicted that Microsoft will develop three operating systems for the ARM platform, including "Windows 8," Windows Embedded Standard and Windows Phone 7. Microsoft actually described the next-generation Windows that will run on ARM architecture as "Windows Next," not Windows 8. The exact name for the new OS hasn't been publicized by Microsoft yet.

App Development and Touch UI
Microsoft faces a tight schedule and several steps to get its next-generation Windows on ARM metal. First, it will have to stabilize the new OS to run on SoCs. Gesture-based user interfaces (UIs) will have to be improved. The company will have to work with its original equipment manufacturer partners to get them to roll out low-power devices at low prices. Finally, Microsoft will have to do evangelist work with independent software vendors, convincing them to roll out gesture-based Windows applications based on the ARM platform, Cherry explained.

Windows 7 already has a touch-based UI, but Miller said that the APIs haven't been widely used by application vendors. He said that the application development story is what Microsoft will have to worry about in its move to the ARM platform. A lot will depend on what Microsoft announces at its next Professional Developers Conference, which traditionally takes place each fall, he added. According to Cherry, Microsoft has said that its Office productivity suite will have to be rewritten for ARM.

The Directions on Microsoft analysts questioned how much of Microsoft Office would be necessary to rewrite for ARM-based devices. For instance, when it comes to tablet devices, they largely agreed that it will not be necessary for Microsoft to bring over a full-featured Office version. Office has many intricacies that don't translate well to a touch-based interface, Cherry said. However, Microsoft does have a tradition of supporting Office on phones, going back to 2002, according to Sanfilippo. Despite that tradition, Sanfilippo suggested that customer demand for Office on phones might be somewhat low.

Scheduling Questions
The timing to get next-generation Windows on ARM devices remains as a big issue, and there is much at stake for Microsoft. Windows 7 shipped in October 2009, so if Microsoft follows its general three-year OS release cycle, the next-generation of Windows might not be seen until late 2012.

Miller said that Microsoft would typically want to time next-generation Windows OEM product releases to address the back-to-school market selling season, and that starts in May. The company will also want to tap the holiday season, and the selling season there begins in August.

Possibly, Microsoft may be more than a year ahead in working to bring next-generation Windows to the ARM platform, based on what was demonstrated at the CES kickoff, Miller said. At that event, Microsoft demonstrated Office and its next-generation Internet Explorer running on a prototype version of next-generation Windows on what was described as ARM-based computers. There were no problems running those programs. However, Microsoft just showed the current Windows 7 UI in its next-generation Windows demos.

One question during the Q&A was about the possibility that Microsoft might leverage the low-power ARM architecture, typically used in mobile devices, for servers. Cherry said that he "can totally envision it." Sanfilippo said that SoCs for the datacenter "could be an interesting proposition."

It remains to be seen. At CES, Intel spokesperson Dave Salvator questioned ARM's power-savings capabilities on full-fledged PCs. He suggested that the power advantage goes away as the number of transistors increase, according to an article published by The Register.

At this point, analysts appear to be largely in the dark about Microsoft's ARM plans. Veteran Microsoft observer Mary-Jo Foley, in a blog post, asked what will happen with Windows Embedded Compact now that low-powered ARM devices running next-generations Windows will be entering the picture. The answer appears to depend on what device makers think about the platforms. It's another blurry area for analysts.

The issues associated with porting next-generation Windows to ARM devices run deep, according to Al Gillen, IDC's program vice president for system software. 

"Beyond the OS, there is the issue of compatibility for existing Windows x86 client applications, and potentially of equal if not greater concern, compatibility for data built in x86 environments," Gillen wrote in an IDC research publication, "Multiplatform Windows: Time To Eat Crow."

In that article, Gillen revised his earlier notion that Microsoft was terminally stuck on x86 architecture, and therefore fated to fall behind mobile competitors. He described Microsoft's latest move with ARM as the right direction to go.

"Now is the time [for Microsoft] to step on the accelerator and get in the game," he concluded.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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