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Windows 8 on ARM, but don't hold your breath

The next version of Windows will run on ARM chips that already power some of the most popular personal computing devices. But don't get too excited--Windows 8 will likely not appear until 2012.

All signs point to the next version of Windows running on ARM, the emerging global silicon standard for smartphones and tablets. But don't get too excited--it won't happen until 2012 at the earliest and just as likely not until 2013.

Unless Windows 7 tablets like the Archos 9 take the world by storm--not likely--consumers will have to wait for Windows 8.
Unless Windows 7 tablets like the Archos 9 take the world by storm--not likely--consumers will have to wait for Windows 8. CNET Reviews

For now, let's call the next major release from Redmond Windows 8--though I'm hearing that Microsoft will call it something else. More importantly, I'm also hearing that Windows 8 isn't due until the fourth quarter of 2012, at the earliest.

So that means tablets running Windows 8 won't appear until 2013. Microsoft could do something in the interim with a technology such as a future version of Windows CE but that's not the Windows we all know and love.

A lot can happen in two years and a lot of that on tablets and smart devices running on Google's and Apple's operating systems--not Windows. "Time after time in the high tech industry you see these companies that are successful in one market can't make the leap into the next phase because they're so busy serving their installed base," said Linley Gwennap of the Linley Group, a chip consulting firm.

Granted, that installed base is still the envy of the tech world: both Microsoft and Intel have a plum position serving a global computer market measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

But that doesn't mean both of those companies are going to lead the next computing revolution, or even evolution. Many consumers look at the iPad and see a device that represents the future of personal computing. While they don't know--or care--that it runs on a power-frugal ARM processor and slimmed-down version of Apple's OS X, both of those technologies are the foundation for its appeal.

And that future began last April when the iPad was released. "Apple is one of those companies that is really good at bringing out the next product that obsoletes their previous products," Gwennap said. That is a crucial point. Apple is bold enough to entertain the possibility of ultimately cannibalizing its own MacBook product line (it's not hard to imagine next-generation iPads that increasingly impinge on the feature set of the MacBook Air) with the iPad because it knows it has to create new markets to be successful.

Not to rain too much on the Windows-on-ARM parade, but Windows on other platforms--such as outside of Intel's x86--has not fared well, either. Full-featured versions of Windows--what used to be called Windows NT--ran on PowerPC, MIPS, and Alpha processors. However, support for all three platforms was phased out. While certainly ARM holds more promise for Microsoft than DEC's Alpha technology ever did, it doesn't mean that Windows will necessarily be successful on ARM.

And that chance for success gets dimmer every month that Microsoft doesn't bring out a fully optimized version of Windows for tablets. So, the prospect of Windows 8 in 2012 will stick out as a symbol of WinTel's complacency. And how much bigger does Apple (which President Obama cited today in a news conference as an American success story) need to get before it begins to eclipse both of those companies, combined? We should know by 2012.