Windows 8 on ARM: The Big Questions

Microsoft released a lengthy blog post yesterday on their website specifically around Windows 8 on ARM. Although the post shed some insight into a number of the looming questions we all have about Windows on ARM, there are still a few things I am concerned about.

Windows 8 on ARM has the potential to be either wildly successful and disruptive but it also has the potential to fail in the short-term.

How Will Microsoft and Retail Position the X86 vs the ARM hardware Versions?
When I put myself in the consumer buying mindset for a new Windows-based PC, I see some potential confusion when it comes to product positioning. Microsoft has a challenge on their hand that I am fascinated to see how they figure it out.

What Microsoft, their hardware partners, and their retail partners can not do is position ARM notebooks or other form factors as limited devices. So they can’t use terms like “full Windows experience” or “the Windows you know and love” types of terminology for non-X86 devices. Taking this direction would cause consumers to ask of their ARM counterparts: “I don’t get the full Windows experience I know and love on these products”? Which would essentially deem Windows on ARM devices to fail because they would be positioned as truncated.

This is actually an area where I am intrigued to see if the Intel inside branding efforts of years past have any relative spill over. It actually could if consumers are on the fence. Consumers may consider going with a product with Intel, or AMD for that matter, the “safe bet” if there is any confusion what-so-ever.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you are, I don’t think any of the ARM companies benefit by touting their brand name in a Windows 8 on ARM device. For example saying “Runs Nvidia Tegra 3” or “Qualcomm Snapdragon”. In fact that may add to the confusion rather than help clear it up.

It is of course possible that Microsoft and retail partners ignore trying to position Windows on X86 and Windows 8 on ARM differently at all. However, unless the device experiences have no difference at all this would be a mistake.

Will All Drivers Be Supported?
To quote the blog post directly:

“Our device strategy uses standardized protocols and class drivers extensively”

“Of course Windows has many class drivers inside, which you experience when you plug-in a wide variety of USB devices, such as storage, mice, or keyboards.“

“The majority of printers selling today are supported using the class driver, which means you’ll be able to “plug and print” on WOA without additional drivers”

This must be true and must be delivered upon. I want to be optimistic about this and take Microsoft at their word that drivers won’t be an issue, as they appear to insinuate. However, I will feel better once I see Windows 8 on ARM working with a wide variety of peripherals.

Are Consumers Willing to Invest in New Software?
This may be perhaps the biggest point to wrestle with. As I have stated before, I believe Microsoft, with Windows 8 in general, has come as close to fundamentally starting over with Windows as they possibly could without completely starting over. Windows 8 is a step in the right direction to optimize Windows for the future of computing.

Consumers being willing to start fresh with software is the wild card for me. Unfortunately I have no hard data (yet) on this but I will offer some observational logic as to why this may be the case.

Firstly, consumers switching to the Mac platform at incredible rates is an indicator. Apple continually mentions their stats on each quarterly call that 50% of Mac sales are to first time Mac buyers. This would mean that many of those customers have made investments in Windows software and are willing to start over. Perhaps this same buying psychology could translate to Windows 8 on ARM with a reality that legacy Windows software isn’t as important as many would think.

Secondly, reports came out in late December from Flurry that on Christmas day there was a 125% increase in app downloads mostly coming from the 353% increase in device activations on the same day. This leads us to believe that as consumers get a new device they go app shopping.

Lastly, the economics support this trend. The reality is that the new app economy has driven the cost of software down. This is not only true of mobile devices but of desktop / notebook as well. The days of selling software and software bundles in the hundreds of dollars are over. If you look at the top-selling apps in the Mac OSX App store there isn’t a single one over $29.99 and most are well south of that figure. With lower overall app pricing becoming the norm it makes it feasible for consumers to actually start over with software.

Could it be Netbooks all Over Again?
In all of these scenarios I am generally concerned that Windows 8 on ARM devices may be headed down the path of Netbooks in their early days if we are not careful. Netbook return rates were north of 30% in their early years mainly because consumers bought them expecting a “full PC” experience and early Netbooks didn’t deliver. This was primarily because early devices were Linux-based. However, even once the devices ran Windows, they were still positioned as “not full PCs” mainly because they were underpowered. It was a positioning mess in my opinion.

I am not as concerned of these devices being underpowered as much as I am them fully delivering on the full PC experience. This will have to include a robust list of software, which Microsoft and partners are working on. There are a number of form factors outside of the clamshell PC design that I think will be more successful for Windows 8 on ARM vendors and Hybrids being the most interesting potential.

Even with all the questions still looming, ultimately the positioning of these products is what will make or break Windows on ARM devices.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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