Microsoft's Windows on ARM promises new outlet for mobile apps

Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) new processor architecture, Windows on ARM, will open up a potentially huge market for device vendors and give traditional Windows developers the chance to work in a mobile environment. But before that can happen, Microsoft needs to create a new and robust ecosystem to support its WOA launch later this year.

Microsoft said it has been testing WOA on existing ARM devices such as phones. (The company noted that the above picture "is not a product plan or even a hint at a product.")

The developer community will have an important role in WOA's success because they will create the products that Microsoft needs to capture the most crucial part of the ecosystem: customers. Vendors that are working with Microsoft are encouraging developers to participate.

"If you're a developer, you might imagine your success could be greater than it is in the PC market," said Kathy Brown, general manager of Windows on OMAP at Texas Instruments, which is among the vendors supplying processors for Windows 8 tablets. "We really believe in the potential of this market."

WOA-based devices launching in October
WOA-based devices are expected to launch in October around the same time that vendors will ship new PCs that will run Windows 8 on traditional x86 processors. For now, only selected application developers are being invited by Microsoft to participate in its WOA seed program to work with the technology. These select few, which have not been announced, will be the first to build and evaluate Windows 8 Metro-style apps that run on ARM-based test devices that use processors supplied by Nvidia, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Texas Instruments. Metro apps, designed for touch-based interactions, will be distributed to consumers through the Windows Store. Metro apps built for Windows 8 should be able to run on both x86 and WOA devices.

Developers have been able to work with x86-based devices since last fall, but with just a half-year remaining before a presumed October launch, WOA developers have not had a comparable opportunity.

Qualcomm is working with Microsoft to get devices to developers so they can begin building natively on the ARM environment, said Rob Chandhok, president of Internet services at Qualcomm and senior vice present at Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. "People like to build on the real thing, and especially when you're doing a big transition like this, it is really important. We're working hard to get [devices] out there," he said. "In the meantime, any developer that is working on a Metro application knows that it will also run on the ARM SKU," he said.

Chandhok said Qualcomm is contacting developers now and he encourages any developers who are interested to contact the company.

Developers optimistic about WOA
Meanwhile, developers are optimistic about WOA but they do have questions about it. "ARM is a great fit of the technology for tablets," said Tim Greenfield, senior software engineer at Vertigo Software and whose personal app, PuzzleTouch, was one of the winners of Microsoft's first contest for Windows 8 Metro-style apps.

"Ultimately, I think [WOA] will just make Windows 8 run better in a tablet environment. It means more devices and more options for users, and that means more users, and that means a bigger potential market for developers."

Patrick Cushing, product manager at SigFig Software, whose SigFig Portfolio app for monitoring stocks was another Windows 8 app contest winner, said that WOA will not likely be essential to his company's business, but they're interested in it. "For us, it doesn't really matter what devices people use," he said.

"The big question will be, once we start seeing these devices on the market, how much customization we have to do," he added. "The assumption is none, but it is hard to say until we see a lot of these on the market."

WOA will support Metro-style apps for mail, calendar, contacts, photos and storage, hardware-accelerated HTML5 and Internet Explorer 10. WOA will also introduce Microsoft Office applications architected for touch and minimizing power consumption.

WOA does have limitations
Any Metro-style app written for Windows 8 will automatically be able to run on either WOA or x86 devices. However, WOA will not allow third-party firms to develop legacy-style desktop applications and there will be a limit to the Windows applications customers can install on WOA devices. Developers wanting to work with traditional-style applications will need to target their work to the x86-based devices.

The reason for the WOA limitations is well understood--traditional Windows applications have not been designed for the low-power environment that makes ARM processors special in the mobile market. Nevertheless, the customer base may have problems with that.

The analyst community is also eagerly awaiting the release of Windows 8 devices because it represents a pivotal point in the competition between the ARM and x86 architectures. "Windows on ARM will not run organizations' existing applications, and it won't integrate with existing PC and security infrastructure," said Michael Silver, a vice president and research director in the client computing group at Gartner Research. "Those are going to be two things that limit the adoption of Windows on ARM in organizations."

Silver is also concerned that consumers will be confused when they browse the products available in retail stores. "How will they understand the difference between the two devices?" he asked.

In addition to market response, Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, said that researchers are eager to compare the WOA devices that use processors from Nvidia, Qualcomm and TI against full x86 solutions. "We'll see what platforms will be the best, not only for traditional mobile, but also for traditional office-based environments," he said.

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