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Windows Ported to ARM? Handicapping the Three Scenarios

Yesterday, I was 100% skeptical about Microsoft supposedly bringing Windows 7 to ARM tablets. I figured Redmond was being deliberately ambiguous about *which* version of Windows in order to do a snow job on tech-challenged, deadline-pressed biz journos (ever heard of Windows Embedded Compact? It’s only been around, oh, 14 YEARS.)

Today,  I am willing to suspend my disbelief, the same way I do whenever I turn  on the cable and some movie adapted from a comic book is playing.  Because Microsoft’s developers would have done a truly Superhero thing  if they’ve been able to shrink Windows down such that it doesn’t rely on Intel’s brawn.

(Digression: in the mobile age, Intel’s x86 CPU increasingly looks like this guy: super-strong, but pointlessly so  (why do I need six cores if none of my software can take advantage of  them?). ARM CPUs, with their long battery life and efficient power  usage, are more like this yoga dude.)

So here are three ways I think this thing could play out when Steven  Ballmer steps on the CES stage in January, in increasing order of  likelihood:

1) Microsoft shows off a polished-and-optimized version of Windows 7 for ARM tablets that will ship on tablets in 2011.

Advantages: Immediately makes Microsoft a player on  tablets, due to Windows’ massive ecosystem of software and its army of  developers. “This will bring a tidal wave,” my colleague at Sybase, Tony Kueh,  wrote to me in an e-mail, pointing out all of the .Net apps that will  immediately be able to run, and all of the native apps built with  Microsoft’s popular Visual Studio tool that will only need a simple  recompilation.

Disadvantages: It pisses off long-time partner, Intel, which did a great job co-opting netbooks, but has yet to prove its Oak Trail processors are efficient enough to make them relevant for tablets. Also puts it in competition with its largest OEM, HP, which is backing its own WebOS.  Also renders Windows Embedded Compact 7, which it had been   pre-announcing all of 2010 (though to mostly-deaf ears), totally  irrelevant.

Likelihood: 25%. Rumors about Microsoft porting the PC version of Windows to ARM have been circulating as long as those  the Apple tablet ones (and look at how that proved true). Where there’s  smoke, there’s probably fire…Also, it’s believable that Microsoft’s  Windows chief, Steven Sinofsky, was able to throw a few of his several thousand developers onto a skunkworks ARM project, especially after the success of Windows  7. Kueh, who was a longtime employee at Microsoft who helped  launch  Windows Mobile, believes in this scenario (though he says he has no  insider knowledge), pointing out that “the NT kernel is designed  for  multiple architectures — recall that NT used to support x86 AND  MIPS.”  (MIPS is a type of CPU that was the equivalent of ARM in the 1990s)

2) Haha, did you think we were actually bringing Windows 7 to ARM tablets? We meant Windows Embedded Compact all along.

Advantages: Remember those dot-com-era Pocket PCs? Those were  ARM-based devices running an earlier version of Windows Embedded  Compact, then called Windows Compact Embedded (the flipping of the last  two words, conveniently, means no more puns at WinCE’s expense).  So making Windows Embedded Compact 7, the latest version, run on ARM  tablets is no problem. In fact, as pointed out above, this is the drum  Microsoft has been beating all year.

Disadvantages: Did you know that Windows Embedded Compact  is  basically the same as Windows Phone 7 under the hood? Most of us don’t,  which testifies to the lack of mindshare Win Embedded Compact has among  even techies. Unless Microsoft is going to start investing heavily in  marketing Windows Embedded Compact (step #1, change its mouthful of a  name), this feels a bit like too much of the same old, same old.

Likelihood: 30%. Initially, my cynical self thought this was  the most likely scenario. But I think Microsoft’s PR consigliore,  Waggener Edstrom, is smart enough to advise against such a  bait-and-switch strategy. Hell hath no fury like a reporter who has been  tricked.

The great-great-great-grandchild of the OS that ran this 1996-era  iPaq could be Microsoft’s new Windows OS for ARM tablets. Now aren’t you  excited? ————————————————————————–

3) Microsoft shows off a rough version of Windows for ARM tablets  that it says will ship in several years when it unifies its PC-tablet  roadmap under Windows 8. Meanwhile, it pushes Windows Embedded Compact  for ARM for the next several years.

Advantages: Gives Microsoft developers more breathing room. And what ‘s the rush? Even the most optimistic market researcher, Gartner, only sees the next year’s tablet market to be one-eighth the size of the PC one.

Disadvantages: Let’s see, you’ve just confirmed that Windows  Embedded Compact is a lame duck on tablets. Good luck trying to attract  hardware or software support. (Cars are another story: Windows Nissan just announced its Leaf electric car would run Windows Embedded Automotive)

Likelihood: 45%. Microsoft has always loved to pre-announce,  so this makes all sorts of sense to me. Microsoft’s licensing deal with  ARM to make ARM CPUs is only six months old after all.  So while I think Microsoft is embracing ARM, I doubt Microsoft is  shifting this fast, despite how far the rumors go back – see Mary Jo Foley’s coverage.  Also, it would be too much of a radical power shift towards Sinofsky  and away from Bob Muglia, the  senior VP who runs Server & Tools  (Exchange, SharePoint, cloud, etc.) and whose division only absorbed  the Embedded group 3 months ago.

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