When Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) first unveiled Windows 8 earlier in the year, I was thoroughly impressed with its tablet potential. Research firm IDC doesn't feel the same way, though.
I had written, "I think Windows 8 will be a winner in the tablet market, though I do have some reservations on how the OS will fare in the traditional desktop and laptop segments, since the UI is so heavily geared toward touch." For the most part, I still stand by this statement.
Mind if I cut in?
I don't think Windows 8 tablets will beat the iPad 3, but that doesn't mean it can't be successful in its own right. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) should continue to reign supreme in the tablet market for the foreseeable future, but the market is growing so quickly that there should be room for a few other players to succeed.
Echoing my skepticism of the operating system's desktop and laptop prospects, IDC says, "Windows 8 will be largely irrelevant to the users of traditional PCs, and we expect effectively no upgrade activity from Windows 7 to Windows 8 in that form factor." In fairness, IDC is extremely bullish on Windows Server 8's possibilities.
WinARM versus Wintel
IDC believes Microsoft will have a tough time delivering a "successful" tablet experience as it ambitiously embraces both x86 processors, like those from Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , and those based on ARM Holdings' (Nasdaq: ARMH ) designs. The researcher concedes that the x86 tablet strategy may work as a transition for current PC users, but Windows on ARM has some high hurdles to clear.
One of the biggest challenges WinARM will face is that applications will need to be rewritten to be compatible with ARM architecture, and existing ARM mobile devices will already be even more mature by the time Windows 8 hits. Apple has set the ARM-based standards in mobile, so Windows 8 will be facing an uphill battle.
It's been done
It's worth mentioning that Apple has successfully made such profound processor architecture transitions in the past. Apple transitioned from Motorola 68k processors to PowerPC chips in the early '90s, only to subsequently proceed to Intel processors in 2006 -- the difference being that Apple provided software emulators every step of the way, to help hide the seams of the switch; Microsoft is not providing any emulator to allow x86 applications to run on ARM.
A new level
Apple's biggest criticism of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android has always been its fragmentation. Android fragmentation typically refers to the onslaught of differing hardware specs and OS versions found out there. Having two entirely separate Windows 8 platforms, x86 and ARM, would take fragmentation to a whole new level.
I think Microsoft needs to change its mind and include emulation so that both versions of Windows 8 can play nicely together. The confusing part is that it doesn't seem like Microsoft is taking a stance over which it prefers. That ambivalence may end up hurting the OS, since developers may have to pick which architecture to focus on, adding fodder to the fragmentation criticism.
What's the point?
The argument that current PC users will have little to no reason to upgrade to Windows 8 is particularly valid, especially considering enterprise customers who may have just finished migrating to Windows 7. It makes little sense after just making a switch to embark upon an OS whose touch-centric "Metro" interface has dubious value when used on a traditional mouse-and-keyboard PC.
Back to tablets
IDC thinks Windows 8 tablets will be "disappointing." Forrester Research (Nasdaq: FORR ) and Gartner similarly agree. While I happen to think Windows 8 tablets have a decent chance, they will definitely face some headwinds. The biggest issue will be their late arrival.
In my Foolish opinion, Windows 8 tablets will have much better odds if Microsoft fully embraces ARM-based tablets while leaving x86 offerings to desktops and laptops. It will need to wow the market to compensate for its unfashionably late debut, and the only way to do that is with decisive focus.
This story is just beginning, and only time will tell once Windows 8 is released next year. Stay up to speed by adding Microsoft to your Watchlist. Speaking of the mobile revolution, don't miss this free report on 3 component suppliers who are cashing in on the move to mobile.