Are Defections Starting Because of Surface?

An interesting link was forwarded to me by a colleage (thanks @jonathan_kohl) that claims that HP is going to abandon work on ARM-based devices for Windows 8. Of course, it is rumour and speculation, but if it is true (and the first of more to come), this could prove problematic for Windows 8 and its battle against the iPad. Part of the goal of WART (Windows on ARM RT) was to have a device that offered the “benefits” of Windows on a low-power device with useful battery life. The hope was that mainstream Windows software would be rebuilt for WART, along with being redesigned for a touch interface. It’s the apps that are a big reason for iPad’s success, and the Windows catalog would be a powerful weapon to counter that.

Does More Mean More?

There is one concept in some product categories that “more means more”. More choice means more people are likely to buy into the platform, and that leads to increased sales and marketshare. That has certainly worked for Android in smartphones, although Samsung and HTC are pretty dominant. It’s a big drop-off after those two in terms of unit sales.

The same was likely thought about for Windows 8 and ARM: more tablets and other devices from more manufacturers would give WART a leg up on the iPad. Consider that the iPad only has 3 basic models with variations on available storage. Being able to ride on the backs of well-known brands like HP, Dell, Acer, ASUS and Lenovo would bring credibility to the platform, and choice to the consumer.

But sometimes more doesn’t always matter. Look at the tablet market today: Apple is able to completely control that market with a fairly modest number of products. The iPhone, despite being in second place, holds a healthy share of the smartphone market with an equally limited selection. Even the iPod was able to dominate the MP3 player market with a small number of available products. Just because you have more to choose from doesn’t mean that people are going to choose it.

It may be enough that Microsoft offers a small but solid set of ARM products running Windows 8 to cut into iPad’s lead. Their Surface is a impressive inside and out, with strong hardware and compelling design. The question, though, is that will it be enough if they are left alone in the market? Can Microsoft’s brand, known more for software than hardware in the PC world, help the ARM version of the Surface gain a strong position in the market? Will it get enough of the Windows software catalog to offer a compelling ecosystem to counter the iPad?

Intel Tablets Probably Won’t Matter

This could mean that the broader selection could end up in the Intel tablet camp, and that likely won’t be enough to unseat or even challenge iPad. Adding a better touch-oriented environment will help, because the current Windows tablets are selling rather poorly. Being able to claim that most of the existing Windows catalog of 3rd party software will work is a benefit. But what will hurt, at least in the medium-term, will be the lack of good touch-oriented versions of all those programs. That, by itself, won’t be fatal, but it could be debilitating for a time.

What could hurt worse, though, will be the battery life. Unless that Surface is all batteries, Microsoft could be hard pressed to offer much more than a half-day’s worth of power before needing to pump more electrons into storage. Sure, a lot of ultrabooks are getting 6-8 hours of battery life, but they have an enormous number of batteries on-board. The Surface may not have enough space for all of that battery power.

If it does, then it means it is gaining weight to do so. It’s one thing to have a 1-2kg laptop. A 1-2kg tablet is a different story, given that the iPad is well under 1kg now. That’s the trade-off: fewer batteries will keep down the weight but offer less unplugged run-time; more batteries will gain run-time but now you make the weight unacceptable. Either way, the Intel tablet will be held back from dominance, in part because of this trade-off.

There is another potential issue: heat. Let’s face it, under some conditions, and iPad can get a bit toasty. And we all know just how hot Intel laptops can run. Now, imagine trying to hold a device in your hands giving out that kind of heat. Again, by itself, not necessarily fatal. But when you add it all up (heat, battery life, lack of good tablet programs), together it isn’t an encouraging picture.

This doesn’t mean that the Intel version won’t sell. It will. It does have some appeal. But it won’t necessarily be mainstream appeal. It could end up as more of a niche/marginal device, and not the “iPad Killer” some are hoping to see.

Likely Beneficiaries?

Does this mean that Android tablets get a boost? Not likely, simply because some of the OEM’s that could defect already have Android tablets, and they aren’t doing very well. Android has it’s own problems, and so far, there is nothing to indicate that will change. The absence of a strong ARM-based Windows tablet won’t help Android’s fortunes in this space.

But what might get a boost is ChromeOS, and not for tablets, but for notebooks and ultrabooks. If HP and others are willing to say “no way” to a Windows-based ARM tablet, and take a step away from Microsoft on this front, then what else are they willing to reconsider? I don’t expect a mass defection from Windows on Intel notebooks/ultrabooks, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a few Chrome-based devices start to show up, just to test the waters. If these OEMs are going to get in deeper with Google, Chrome could see a small boost.

Until We See A Press Release…

Of course, until there is something official, this is just speculation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some pushback because of Microsoft’s decision to enter the hardware market, and go head-to-head with OEMs. Acer already made noise about their displeasure. But whether it leads so some kind of wholesale defection from WART by the OEMs is a bigger question. The risk is certainly there. The question is what is the probability it could happen? Never say never, I guess.