Microsoft girds for iPad war with ARM, tablet plans

IT managers in Windows shops can expect Windows 8 to support low power ARM chips for tablets and other devices.

Enterprises with field technicians and other end users that require devices such as netbooks and tablets will get the option of running Windows on devices that support ARM processors.

As previously reported, Microsoft will support ARM processors in the next version of Windows, answering the demand for the iPad, netbooks and tablets that use those low-power chips.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that by supporting ARM chips, the company can meet the demand for tablet devices that offer the full power of a PC. "Support for Systems on a Chip means that Windows will be on every type of device without compromise," Ballmer said at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas this week.

That next version of Windows will support System on a Chip (SOC) designs based on ARM processors in devices from partners NVIDIA Corp., Qualcomm Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. Microsoft emphasized its continued partnership with Intel and AMD, and said it will also work with those chip makers on low power x86 architecture SOCs.

SOC consolidates major computing components on to one piece of silicon, which translates into reduced power needs. That makes SOCs such as ARM processors ideal for devices smaller than laptops, such as tablets and netbooks.

Lovell Hopper, a programming manager with a government agency on the west coast, said he has used Intel's Atom-based tablets and is developing applications to take advantage of those devices in the enterprise.

Small PCs such as netbooks and tablets are a good form factor for technicians in the field or for employees that need access to applications but don't need to do a lot of typing or large file manipulation, Hopper said.

The devices he uses need at least 2GB of RAM or more to support the full version of Windows 7, he said.

Windows is a hefty operating system and Microsoft will presumably have to remove many of the features that cause its bloat if it is to compete against other tablet operating systems, such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android for tablets.

But Microsoft already has Windows Embedded CE for ARM-based phones; Windows Phone 7 is built on that, so it won't be a stretch to come up with a new, slimmed down version of Windows for ARM-based tablets, said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft.

Microsoft has introduced various forms of tablet PCs since the 1990s, including the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2002. Microsoft's tablet PCs never clicked with customers like the Apple iPad, probably because it provided limited capabilities and didn't offer the Web-browsing and applications available on the iPad.

One of Microsoft's biggest challenges will be overcoming its late entry into the tablet market and having to compete against blockbuster products such as the iPad. But Microsoft has come from behind before and sold successfully into its massive customer base.

The ability to use familiar Microsoft applications and manage them with Microsoft tools will be particularly appealing to Windows shops.

"My affinity to the Windows based tablets is the ability to manage them centrally via the same Active Directory mechanisms that are employed to manage the rest of the enterprise," Hopper said.

Microsoft did not offer a timeline for the next version of Windows, but it is expected to be ready in 2012.

Windows 7 already ships on some tablets, such as the new ASUS Eee Slate tablet, which is priced far above similar tablets on the market. For example, the 12-inch Windows 7-based Eee Slate listed at $999 on Amazon.com Wednesday, compared to a 10-inch Android-based convertible tablet, the Eee Pad Transformer, priced at $446 that day. The Apple iPad, with a 9.7-inch screen, retails for about $500 on Amazon.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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