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Three reasons Microsoft shouldn’t port Windows to the ARM processor

Microsoft Corp. is facing increasing pressure to bring its mainstream Windows operating system to the ARM mobile CPU. But analysts say the company should take a different route.

Nicholas Negroponte, head of the One Laptop Per Child Association Inc. (OLPC), said Wednesday that “like many, we are urging” Microsoft to support the ARM processor already used in several billion cell phones and which the OLPC, as well as others, plans to use in the next version of its children's laptop.

The week before, Warren East, CEO of ARM Holdings, the designer of the CPU, said that with 10 ARM-based netbooks likely to hit stores by year's end, Microsoft is in danger of missing out.

“I think it's a dangerous missed opportunity for them,” East told the Financial Times. “Personally, I think they should be supporting ARM now.”

Through a spokeswoman, Microsoft was noncommittal.

“Microsoft's plan is to offer a quality Windows experience on the current XO device,” the spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. “Microsoft is not commenting on any future plans with regard to OLPC, nor does it comment on speculation.”

Proponents say ARM's low power usage and low cost will enable a new wave of smaller, less expensive (sub-$300) netbooks that can run all day on a single charge.

Already used in cell phones and in Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle 2, ARMs will prove so attractive to netbook makers and consumers alike that by 2012, 55% of netbooks will ship with an ARM processor instead of an x86, such as the current market-dominating Intel Atom, predicts analyst Robert Castellano of The Information Network.

Without a version of Windows tailored for ARM netbooks, Linux-based platforms such as Google Inc.'s Android mobile operating system could thrive and turn the search and Web services company into “more of a competitor in the desktop operating system business than we ever have before,” admitted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to Wall Street last month.

Despite this threat, analysts say Microsoft shouldn't counterattack by porting Windows 7, XP or even Vista to ARM. Why?

1. It will hurt its close partner, Intel Corp.

Intel is fighting back against ARM's attempts to move upmarket from smartphones into netbooks, which would further cannibalize Intel's PC chip sales.

Earlier this month, Intel recruited Taiwanese chip foundry TSMC to design Atom chips that could work in smartphones, ARM's current strength.

“Intel really wants to get into both markets; Microsoft really needs to stay out,” Castellano said. If Microsoft ports Windows XP or 7 to ARM, Castellano envisions retaliatory moves from Intel, such as actively optimizing its x86 CPUs to run Linux better than Windows.

2. Technical difficulties.

Microsoft has successfully brought Windows out of mainstream PCs to embedded platforms before. Windows Embedded Standard is a port of Windows XP. Its offshoots, such as WEPOS (Windows Embedded for Point of Service) are hugely popular for kiosks and electronic cash registers. It's even ported the weighty Windows Vista to embedded PCs with a version called Vista Business Embedded.

The difference, however, is that those ports were still for devices running x86 processors. Doing a real port of XP, Vista or Windows 7 to a different platform such as ARM would be a technical “nightmare,” according to independent analyst Jack Gold.

“Windows takes a pretty substantial amount of processing power, and it's not clear that ARMs deliver enough,” he said. Also, “ARM processors run completely different from x86 ones. The instruction sets are different; the drivers are completely different.”

Gold concluded, “It's an incredible challenge, and Microsoft has got enough on their plate.”

Castellano agreed, saying that many of the strengths shown by ARM devices — their low energy usage and quick start-up — would disappear if they ran Windows.

“How many processes need to start up on a PC before you can start to interact with it? All of that comes with Windows,” he said.

3. Microsoft already has an OS — several, in fact — that run on ARM.

Not well known to the general public is the fact that Microsoft already has a successful platform that works with ARM called Windows Embedded Compact, formerly known as Windows Embedded CE, formerly and better known as Windows CE.

A decade ago, Windows CE — and its offshoots, such as the Pocket PC — gained a bad rap as the unstable, bloated operating system on PDAs that competed with the original Palm.

Windows Embedded Compact has changed a lot since then. Its chief offshoots today are Windows Automative and Windows Mobile, the smartphone operating system.

With Windows Embedded Compact and its close sibling, Embedded Standard (based on a cut-down version of the XP kernel), Microsoft leads the commercial market for embedded operating systems, with about a third of the market by sales revenue, according to Venture Development Corp.

Despite the hype around Apple Inc.'s iPhone, Windows Mobile smartphones had 45% higher sales worldwide in 2008 than the iPhone, according to Gartner Inc., and ranked third overall behind Nokia Corp.'s Symbian phones and Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerries.

Analysts such as Gold are optimistic that the next version of Windows Mobile, called Windows Mobile 7, will be a vast improvement over current versions. It is expected to be released next year.

The logical move, he said, is for Microsoft to create a “souped-up” version of Windows Mobile to run on netbooks that takes advantage of their larger screens and keyboards.

Castellano agreed. ARM netbooks won't become popular for at least several years, giving Microsoft time to retool Windows Mobile and make it work well on netbooks.

“You might as well try to get a piece of the action without affecting Intel,” Castellano said.

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