As Microsoft abandons ARM on the desktop, will Google become its saviour?
The first generation Surface (Review) launched alongside Windows 8 and Windows RT in late 2012, intended to be the torchbearer for a new generation of Windows devices: portable, affordable and certainly not tied to the past. Unlike the Surface Pro that launched alongside it, the Surface ditched support for all known Windows software in favor of new “modern” apps from the Windows Store.
The Surface strategy was the result of several things happening at the same time. Low-cost, low-power ARM processors had recently become a viable alternative to the dominant x86 standard, tablets were becoming increasingly popular at the expense of laptops and desktops, and Microsoft had finally begun to take it seriously. the threats hanging over all his businesses from a new generation of upstarts. These weren’t happening at the same time by coincidence; they were all related. Microsoft read the signs and decided on a top-down reinvention.
ARM processors are cheap, consume very little power, and generate very little heat compared to x86 processors, the dominant standard for PCs. Software designed for either architecture won’t work on the other, and Windows was designed for x86 from the start. As a result, the best Windows tablets before the Surface line were still essentially shrunken PCs: bulky, heavy, and unable to last very long on each charge. They didn’t offer any compelling advantages over iPad or Android tablets.
Until then, Microsoft had regularly been criticized for flattering customers for whom twenty-year-old technology was enough. He had grown accustomed to pushing backwards compatibility to absurdity; perpetuate old habits and water down anything new and fresh lest it alienate users.
Microsoft finally decided it was time to get down to the things people actually wanted to buy and use, which meant a fundamental shift. ARM was clearly the way to go, but that would require a willingness to start from scratch with a new operating system and new programs. Windows RT was a leap of faith meant to complement Windows 8, but was aimed at Microsoft’s imagined new audience of users who didn’t need or want anything of the old.
Except, as we now know, it was all a total disaster. People like change when it improves things in a significant way, whether big or small; perceived or invisible. No one likes being forced to give up years of learning and adapt to something arbitrarily different – and certainly not without having a say in the matter.
Windows RT, consisting only of the unpopular Windows 8 “modern” user interface and unable to run common software, never really stood a chance. It didn’t look, feel, or function that customers expected. The Windows Store took too long to grow and still doesn’t have the same number and variety of high-quality, engaging apps as iOS and Android.
Microsoft never managed to find compelling reasons for anyone to buy a Surface over an iPad (or even a cheap laptop), and the stock eventually sold at a massive discount. Other manufacturers who had tried Windows RT devices did no better. There was a Surface 2 and a Surface Pro 2 the following year, but a Surface 3 was conspicuously absent when the Surface Pro 3 was announced in its day. The backlash had set Microsoft on a years-long path of apologies and reversals, as evidenced by the fact that the Surface 3 has only just appeared, running Windows 8.1 on x86. It carries the Surface name forward, but not the ideology.
Windows RT is now quietly and unofficially gone, taking with it ARM’s biggest hit in the PC space so far. In the years since the Surface launch, Intel has made significant advances in battery life and heat dissipation, and full Windows is not only possible on tablets, but actually desirable.
ARM will need a viable operating system to attempt another large-scale foray into x86 territory, or device makers will have nothing to sell. Microsoft probably hasn’t completely given up – there has been talk of a Windows 10 equivalent for existing ARM Surface devices, and the new humble appeasement approach Microsoft has taken with the UI could make a similar equation work on another try.
But the most exciting opportunities for ARM at this point are Chrome OS and, surprisingly, Android. Google is the only company that can deliver a modern operating system complete with an ecosystem of third-party apps, web services, and everything that today’s users expect. Chrome OS continues to go from strength to strength, especially in less prestigious markets such as education.
Soon, Android apps will run on Chrome OS, making it even more versatile. A slew of new devices unveiled recently, from touchscreen convertible tablets to all-in-one desktops, ultra-affordable and ultra-premium covers and even a tiny HDMI dongle, exemplify Google’s vision and commitment. At the same time, Android-powered desktops and docking stations that turn smartphones into workstations are becoming increasingly viable.
There will still be a struggle, but ARM will have the benefit of native software support as well as an army of licensees including Qualcomm, MediaTek, Nvidia and Rockchip who already have relevant experience. At the same time, Intel is building on its own strengths and is well aware of the importance of the Chrome ecosystem.
The ARM vs. x86 debate won’t take place in any shop floor where rows of tablets and laptops vie for buyers’ attention, because most people don’t care about those low-level distinctions. But behind the scenes, billion-dollar machinations are being played out between ARM, Intel, Google, Microsoft and others, shaping the very long-term future of personal computing.