Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky announced Windows on ARM (WOA) in a blog today and the word "disruptive" is hardly adequate. Other than the fact that Microsoft needs some serious work on naming, isn't "WOA" what you say when you want to stop a horse? Of course, in a commercial this could be "Windows on ARM, WOA, this could be really cool!" I guess it is a matter of perception, but actually this is kind of cool because it looks to me like it is actually doing what few vendors in Microsoft's position do. It is bringing its "A" game to this market and bundling key Office components with this platform in order to make it compelling.
I've been using Android products for sometime now and while the OS has gotten increasingly better, the issue is that while they are fine for entertainment, their productivity options suck. My common complaint is they truly need something like Office and Google's alternative, in comparison, sucks. Given that the Metro interface, which first came out on the Windows Phone, hasn't been that popular, leading with productivity, which remains a Microsoft strength, should provide a far more compelling solution.
Let's explore Microsoft's ARM play today.
There are three tablets that have actually done well in the market so far. They are the market-leading iPad, the Kindle Fire (basically a more focused entertainment device) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which is basically a better-looking iPad knock-off. The Kindle really has no productivity capability yet (other than as a reader). The iPad is being used in both business and government but it is light on productivity capability; you can pick and choose apps like Pages, a nice $10 word processor for the iPad, but if you are a heavy Office user you'd likely be better off with Quickoffice Pro HD for $20, which has better office compatibility, but is neither as elegant as Pages nor is it really a replacement for Microsoft Office.
Quickoffice Pro also has an Android version, but general reviews haven't been that glowing and finding a productivity package for this platform has proven far more difficult. In short, while both the Apple and Google offerings do an increasingly better job with entertainment and are getting powerful custom apps, for general productivity they kind of suck.
Security is another area where these platforms have lagged. Apple's primary security methods are a well-curated app store and security by obscurity - it really doesn't talk about its security issues. This seems to work OK for consumers, but could be problematic in the face of a successful breach that grows more likely the bigger target Apple's platforms become. Google seems to be where Microsoft was in the 1990s with security and it appears to think it is someone else's problem. Its approach to Android has been more of a cost center, which it is given Google's advertising-based funding model; this has a rather impressive number of companies blocking Android at the moment as a security risk even though these same firms are accepting iPads and iPhones.
Microsoft's WOA Strategy
The strategy that has emerged today appears to be to hit the existing tablet market where it is weakest on productivity and security. Windows has already made the adjustment to a more secure platform and currently enjoys security features from free antivirus, to file encryption (bit locker) and better password protection than the other platforms. In its professional form it also supports TPMs (Trusted Platform Modules) and often ships with fingerprint readers (thought to be far more secure than passwords). In short, the ARM version has a better security foundation, thanks to decades of being at a higher risk than competitors.
But Microsoft has led by a significant margin in productivity since the early 90s and apparently it will be bundling in key Office applications modified for Metro with the product. So, and this historically has been an Apple advantage, the Microsoft ARM tablets will be more useful out of the box (potentially) than either Android or Apple.
This will also arguably make the ARM products a better value than their x86 counterparts where Office will not be bundled and will come with a high premium. To prevent this, I expect Microsoft will specify ARM hardware can't approach x86 specifications in size or configuration. However, the other vendors won't be under these restrictions and the counterpunch from Apple or Google could be to move their platforms up market. Apple has been hinting that it plans to move iOS into the Mac space with its own ARM architecture and Google has been cutting deals with Intel, which could be used to move its platforms up as well on either ARM or x86.
As Microsoft moves down market, its competitors could move up market to counter with more cost-effective alternatives. While that will put pressure on Microsoft's margins and likely keep Intel up at night due to the ARM-competitive threats on its home turf, it should also result in lower prices, which are certainly a benefit to buyers.
WOA is slated to release at the same time that Windows 8 for x86 releases and it will provide some interesting choices. I still think the most interesting configuration for this product will be the hybrid configuration where a tablet and a keyboard are wedded as components that can be separated effectively, giving you touch and the ability to use a single product as both laptop and tablet. I've been using the NVIDIA Tegra 3-based Asus Transformer Prime for a few weeks now and, with the right productivity suite, this could become my perfect mobile product.
With WOA, Microsoft promises to give me that productivity suite, built in, and that could make me a believer. A lot can happen between now and the 4th quarter when WOA will ship, but as a start, this will force the other players to rethink their plays.