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Cheap Imitation: The Risk of Windows on ARM

It is said disappointment comes wrapped in lengthy explanation and it doesn’t get much lengthier than the 8,627 words it took Windows Division president Steven Sinofsky to finally detail ‘Windows 8 on ARM’. ‘WOA’ may sound like a line from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but we were far from wowed – in fact we can summarise Sinofsky’s 8,627 words in just two: cheap imitation.

Here is what we learned:

1. WOA will have a desktop, albeit one that only runs Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote) and opens Explorer.
2. WOA will not support virtualisation so no existing x86/x64 programs will ever run on it
3. WOA programmes must be Metro-style apps, only available through the Windows Store
4. WOA’s version of Internet Explorer will not support Flash
5. WOA will be launched at roughly the same time as the x86/x64 version of Windows 8 (Q4 2012), but will not match the latter’s 29 February public beta.

In short: it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, but isn’t really a duck. And for the masses who struggle to tell you what version of Windows they currently run, it is a recipe for disaster. Sceptical? Jump forward 12 months and try explaining points 1-4 to any relative when they ask you what to buy. Worse still run through the conversation you’ll have with friends and relatives who have already bought a WOA device and want to know how they go about installing their favourite programs. The Chinese are famous for producing underwhelming knock-offs of long established, trusted brands… it is rarely done by the brand owner itself.

What Microsoft has done with WOA is break the golden rule: don’t mislead those easily mislead – there is a reason children can walk you through Apple’s product range. As it stands WOA is an important technical achievement for Microsoft’s engineers, but with Intel Medfield architecture hitting devices shortly will there be any real motivation to opt for the watered down Windows? Whatever is saved on price is lost many times over by the fact you will have to buy Metro-equivalents of your existing software all over again. It also sends out the wrong message: Windows using ARM chips cannot be as good, as fully featured as Windows on x86/x64 chips.

Ultimately WOA is the result of misdirection. Shocking as it may sound, there is already a publicly available version of Windows which runs on ARM, which doesn’t have a desktop, which has Office integrated into Metro, which only sells apps bought through a Microsoft Store and it is called Windows Phone. What’s more the Live Tiles of Windows Phone lend themselves perfectly to the tablet space where more tiles can be seen at once and there is less of the continual vertical scrolling that plagues handsets. The problem is Microsoft doesn’t see it that way, that is why it is called Windows ”Phone” and that is why it has gone to so much trouble to create WOA, a Windows 8 cheap imitation.

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