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Why the Windows 8 tablet PC will fail

The Windows 8 tablet PC was supposed to play to Microsoft's enterprise strengths, but if it can't join a domain, what good is it?

Windows on ARM won't be able to join a domain -- a fact that potentially cripples Windows 8 tablet PCs before they're even released.

Microsoft tablets could have been strong in areas that the Apple iPad simply isn't. For example, enterprise IT could have managed them, applied policies to them and used capabilities that have been around since the days of Windows NT 3.1. Instead, however, Microsoft is simply throwing out the core differentiators that Windows on ARM could have had.

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview release gave a closer look at some of Microsoft's plans for tablet computing and competing with the iPad and Android tablets. Buried deep in Microsoft's Windows 8 Consumer Preview Product Guide for Business was this sentence: "Although the ARM-based version of Windows does not include the same manageability features that are in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, businesses can use these power-saving devices in unmanaged environments."

Ultimately, the Windows 8 tablet PC will fail unless Microsoft changes its playbook (no Research In Motion pun intended). Windows tablets are dead in the water for two primary reasons:

1.  People were looking to Microsoft to support a tablet more suited for a business setting, and Windows on ARM doesn't go all the way.

The common complaints among corporate end users about the iPad are that it doesn't have Microsoft Office and that it doesn't integrate as well with other Windows-based communication tools, such as Office Communicator or Lync. Users love the convenience of tablet devices, but integrating them with their existing personal computing environments is like running two systems -- one for viewing and the other for real work.

Microsoft seemed to address that complaint when it announced that the next version of Office would be bundled right into the tablet hardware. It also overhauled its user interface with Metro to make the Windows interface more touch-friendly. But the company has killed any chance of existing applications running on tablets by limiting programs to the ARM instruction set and not allowing any type of emulation layer.

That means only programs rewritten and recompiled specifically for Windows on ARM will work on a Windows 8 tablet PC. This doesn't help run other line-of-business programs outside of Office right from a tablet, which would have been one of the big draws of a Windows device. Of course, an ecosystem for application developers may spring right up, but those apps will be untested in these mission-critical contexts.

2.  IT shops were looking to Microsoft to make a tablet they could integrate with existing desktop and device security policies, which Windows on ARM doesn't support in its current form.

Joining a domain allows a machine to participate in Group Policy, password complexity polices, remote management, granular policy applied to an object's location in the corporate hierarchy and so on. Security administrators complain that iPads and other devices can't be managed, and people expected a Windows 8 tablet PC to at least participate in the security scheme that has been part of Microsoft's business operating system for nearly 20 years now. But not so! Windows on ARM results in a tablet that isn't capable of having group policies applied, will have to run special ARM-targeted security software that will cost extra and probably can't be secured using any traditional Windows tool outside of ActiveSync's device-wipe policies. (And even that isn't yet confirmed.)

Essentially, a Windows 8 tablet PC provides a new interface for Windows users to learn but almost no support for existing applications built on the x86 and x64 instruction sets outside a new, yet-to-be-released version of Office. Manageability support isn't built into Windows on ARM -- not even the basic support that all business versions of Windows have had for over a decade. With all of these shortcomings, I think that many companies investing in tablets will ask, "Why not just get an iPad?"

Jonathan Hassell
is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. His books include RADIUS, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.

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