Analyst 'baffled' by Microsoft talk of Windows 8 on ARM

CES wrong place, talk of chips wrong message, contends Microsoft expert

Microsoft's announcement yesterday at CES that its next version of Windows will run on the ARM chip architecture was the wrong message at the wrong place, said an industry analyst.

"I'm baffled," said Michael Cherry, the analyst at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft whose specialty is Microsoft's operating systems. "I just don't get what they get from this."

Cherry was talking about the news Wednesday from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that Microsoft will support the ARM chip line , which is prominent in smartphones and most recently, Apple's iPad tablet.

Microsoft gave what it called a "technology demonstration" of Windows on ARM, showing off some components but not its user interface.

Although the company has not named the successor to Windows 7, calling it yesterday only the "next version of Windows," most have pegged it as Windows 8 . Nor did Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky, who heads the Windows division, spell out a timetable for its release.

Previously, Microsoft has said it plans to upgrade Windows every three years, which would put the ship date of Windows 8 in late 2012.

But Cherry couldn't figure out why Microsoft would even talk about Windows 8 running on an ARM system-on-a-chip, or SoC, at CES.

"This is the Consumer Electronics Show, right?" said Cherry, emphasizing the first word of the monster trade show's name. "It's not COMDEX," he added, referring to the long-defunct computer show that Las Vegas last hosted in 2003. "And it's not the Professional Developers Conference."

Microsoft picked the wrong stage to talk up Windows and chips, Cherry contended.

"CES is like a car show," Cherry said. "When I go to the auto show, I don't mind seeing a couple of concept cars, but what I really want to know is what can I buy at the dealership now? This is a consumer electronics show. It's not about processors, it's about features. And I didn't hear anything about that."

What Cherry wanted to hear from Microsoft was what features and capabilities a future Windows will deliver on tablets, the hottest hardware category at the moment and the one that Sinofsky was referencing when talking about ARM.

"What I'd rather be hearing right now [from Microsoft] is what are people telling you they want in these devices," said Cherry.

"I don't think people go into a store and say, 'Give me a tablet that runs Windows,'" Cherry added. "They don't say, 'Give me a tablet that runs on an Intel or an ARM processor.' I think they go in and say, 'Give me a portable device that turns on instantly and has interesting apps to read books, browse the Web, check my e-mail."

Microsoft's silence on those issues, and others, left Cherry uneasy.

"I think they can do it," he said, confident that Microsoft could pull off porting Windows to the ARM architecture, and in time for next upgrade. Cherry ticked off several other instances when Microsoft crafted a version of Windows for non-Intel processors, notably Windows NT, which in the 1990s also supported IBM's PowerPC, DEC's Alpha and MIPS' R4000 architectures. "It's totally possible. They clearly have the manpower."

But he's mystified why Microsoft would want to migrate the entire operating system to a tablet platform.

"Do you really gain anything by taking the entire client OS of today and porting it across?" he asked. "Why do they think that the power consumption [of Windows] will be any better on ARM? It's still going to be running a lot of processes."

The better strategy, Cherry argued, would be to emulate Apple, which stripped down its Mac OS to build iOS, the operating system that powers its iPhone and iPad, to provide only those parts necessary for a tablet.

"I saw this as a lot of hand waving," concluded Cherry of yesterday's announcement. "[Microsoft was saying] 'Look at the ARM architecture,' but there was no discussion about timing and other critical factors. I wanted to see some proof that doing [the port to ARM] will give me those attributes important on a tablet."

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