Ballmer Demonstrates Windows on ARM at CES 2011
by Mark W. Hibben
The End of the Wintel Duopoly?
Easily the most significant event of CES was the announcement and demonstration during Ballmer's Keynote that Microsoft will produce a version of the next generation of Windows for mobile SOCs including those from Intel, AMD and ARM licensees such as nVidia and Texas Instruments. I guess Ballmer just got tired of waiting for Moorestown, but then, aren't we all? As if to underscore the seriousness of the endeavor, Ballmer actually had ARM SOC demonstration machines running Windows natively, and in an obvious jab at Apple's lack of full printer support for the iPad, they even demonstrated printing using an ARM native print driver. Yes, I know that Microsoft has produced Windows versions for other non-X86 processors in the past, but not for any markets that threatened Intel's dominance: a version of WinNT for IBM's PowerPC servers, a version of Windows Server for Intel Itanium. Threatening, yes, threatening Intel and the Wintel Duopoly with an ARM version of Windows for the fastest growing segment of the computing world, that's another matter altogether. If the Wintel partnership hasn't been shattered, it must surely be under enormous strain.
Not that there was anything remotely negative in the announcement, and Ballmer was careful to include Intel as a “partner” in SOCs that run x86, but the meaning of the announcement and demonstration were there for all to see. Microsoft was no longer willing to assume that Intel would eventually come up with processors competitive in the low power mobile arena that ARM RISC processors dominate. It’s the old RISC vs. CISC debate all over again, that the execs at Intel probably thought had been laid to rest long ago when they all but obliterated the key RISC champion, the IBM PowerPC in the desktop marketplace. It now seems that RISC has found its true calling as the engine of mobile computing, and one has to wonder whether Intel can truly compete. Clearly, Microsoft isn’t going to wait to find out. They have a valuable desktop and mobile (laptops and netbooks) franchise to protect.
These events often seem to be as much about what isn't said as what is, the deafening silences and omissions. Back at the Financial Analyst Meeting in July, Ballmer had appeared to promise Windows Tablets by the beginning of 2011. The context suggested that these devices were intended to be competitive with the iPad, and one further inferred that some unique variant of Windows would be implemented on the devices. At CES, a Windows iPad killer was notably lacking, and the so-called Windows Tablets were just running a touch enabled version of Win7 much like what was demonstrated back in July.
Hardly the ground up re-thinking of the mobile OS for touch that iOS represents, but basically what I expected on the basis of the July FAM. The demonstrations of the tablet devices at CES were enthusiastic to be sure, but lacking the triumphal character of a promise fulfilled. The Windows 7 tablets are laptops without keyboards but with touch screens and limited, pasted in, touch support in Windows.
In a very real sense, the announcement of future support for ARM in a future version of Windows amounts to throwing in the towel for any near term expectations of a Windows iPad competitor. This really underscores the achievement that Apple's iOS represents, and shows how much time and energy were invested to make iOS a reality. Ballmer and company have realized that competing with iOS and Android won't just be a matter of pasting in a little touch screen functionality to a desktop OS, even a good desktop OS like Win7. The ARM announcement was, above all, an admission of failure in the tablet space that Apple now dominates. But in technology, failure, like success, can be fleeting.