Microsoft’s operating system strategy – this must be wrong?

Word on tech street this week is that Microsoft is looking to make a significant change with the next release  of Windows and make it available on the ARM processor architecture as well as x86/x64. The original Bloomberg story hints that this is so that Windows can get a foothold in the tablet computer market. I hope they’re wrong.

Windows (the one based on NT, not CE) is a desktop operating system. Unfortunately for Microsoft, they cannot pull off the same trick as Apple has achieved with OS X – to reskin the user interface of their desktop operating system to work on mobile devices. This is because Windows wasn’t written to ever support that, and it’s codebase makes it difficult to achieve. Even if it was possible, is there really much point? The main reason for doing it would be to take advantage of the vast library of existing applications for the platform, but these haven’t been designed for mobile/tablet devices either and are going to be clunky to use.

The only chance of success I can see with an ARM-based version of Windows is in the netbook segment. These devices usually have traditional keyboards and pointing devices which is the only effective way to use Windows. Having said that, it’s not going to be the biggest of markets – tablets are where it’s at thanks to the iPad.

Can it not be this simple?

The variations of Windows CE are a different story. Windows Phone 7 looks like an excellent system – it has a user interface that makes the iPhone look dated in a number of areas. They did the right thing with this OS – break with the past and backwards compatibility and start again. It might still become a failure but that will be due to being massively late to market compared to Android and iOS, rather than because of any failure in the product itself.

Tablet computing represents a real opportunity for Microsoft. The market is younger and less established than with smartphones, and although the iPad has an significant early lead at the premium end there’s still a huge opportunity in the mainstream segment. Competition is already building up in the shape of Android tablets, so they need to act quickly.

Microsoft’s best bet for success with tablet computing is not Windows. They should use Windows Phone 7 as a starting point and produce a real tablet computer OS. Earlier this year it looked like this was going to happen with a bizarrely named OS called “Windows Embedded Compact 7”, a variant of Windows Phone 7. The system was even demonstrated on an Asus tablet and looked very promising, but even more bizarrely Asus has now dropped it in favour of Android.

Windows Embedded Compact 7?

Whatever Microsoft does next – and it’s rumoured they’ll be telling us at CES, they need to do two things. Firstly, announce something that actually does the job and does it well – they have shown they can do this with WP7. Secondly, whatever they present must be shipping or guaranteed to ship very soon. People are sick of their vapourware, and it’s a pointless tactic when there’s viable solutions such as Android out there.

Android 3.0 is now rumoured to ship in March, and a revised iPad is expected in February so time is running out…

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