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Whoa, A Lot Of Words From Microsoft on ‘WOA’ PCs

Many questions have come up since Microsoft broached the idea of making its next version of Windows run on two kinds of hardware. One of the company’s top executives has gone to unusual lengths to answer them, but some people are still scratching their heads.

Steven Sinofsky, the head of Microsoft’s Windows business, on Thursday expended more than 8,000 words in a blog post about what he called WOA, a version of the forthcoming Windows 8 operating system that will work on new hardware using cellphone-style chips licensed by ARM Holdings.

The document is likely to be studied for months for clues about the company’s intentions. But here are some key messages:

–WOA machines will be very different. A laptop or tablet running the new operating system along with ARM chips, for example, can remain switched on all the time–like a smartphone–in a low-power mode that allows them to perform tasks such as constantly downloading email for weeks without a battery charge.

“WOA enables creativity in PC design that, in combination with newly architected features of the OS, will bring to customers new no-compromise experiences,” Sinofsky writes.

Unlike Windows 8 on Intel or AMD chips–and every prior version of Windows–there will be no version of the WOA software that users can buy separate from computers. Nor can users install apps in any way but by downloading them from Microsoft’s app store (they will be able to upgrade the OS through that mechanism, too).

Such a regime is common to buyers of Apple iPhones and iPads, but quote foreign to the world of Windows.

–Yet WOA machines will also be much the same as systems that use Windows 8 on chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices. (Sinofsky abbreviates that technology as x86/64). For one thing, new apps designed to take advantage of the new touch-based interface in Windows 8 should be available for both kinds of system.

“Using WOA “out of the box” will feel just like using Windows 8 on x86/64,” he writes.

–WOA systems will ship along with a version of its Office suite of applications, including Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (Outlook is not mentioned). This is a major departure for Microsoft, which would likely never have considered bundling Office apps when it was under antitrust scrutiny for bundling products such as Internet Explorer with Windows.

Sinofsky did not spell out whether WOA users will get the software for free, or whether computer makers might have to pay more for Windows 8 because of it. Many observers are assuming Office will come free. “They have decided that in the device space, they are going to give up on Office revenues,” says Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC.

Nor did Sinofsky say whether the new suite, dubbed Office 15, will also be bundled with Windows 8 on systems that use Intel or AMD based systems.

Rick Sherlund, an analyst with Nomura Securities, thinks such a move might awaken antitrust authorities. “I’m sure there will be fireworks, particularly in Europe,” he says.

–Microsoft is hopeful about similar timing for the two flavors of hardware, but its language leaves a lot of wiggle room. “WOA PCs are still under development and our collective goal is for PC makers to ship them the same time as PCs designed for Windows 8 on x86/64,” Sinofsky writes.

The blog post confirms that an initial beta release of Windows 8 due out at the end of the month will only be the version that runs on x86/64 chips. But some developers on an invitation only basis at the same time will have access to a limited number of ARM-powered devices–essentially prototypes that don’t give much of a sense of how final systems will look, he writes.

One reason to be a bit skeptical about mass shipment of WOA PCs is the fact that the three ARM chip makers initially involved–Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and Nvidia–offer a lot of different capabilities in addition to the basic calculating engines licensed from ARM. So do system makers that use such products, and so do Microsoft and other software makers.

In other words, “every WOA PC is a new engineering effort,” writes Sinofsky. “This is an effort where software people on the Windows team end up debugging silicon with soldering irons, and hardware engineers end up in Visual Studio (Microsoft’s software development tool), debugging timing issues with user interface code.”

–Explaining all this to users won’t be easy. Patrick Moorhead, a former AMD executive who is now president and principal analyst at Moor Insights Strategy, has been arguing that Microsoft will have to market Windows 8 under two different names.

Sinofsky confirmed that point, without providing final product names. “We do want to assure you that, when a consumer buys a WOA PC, it will be clearly labeled and branded so as to avoid potential confusion with Windows 8 on x86/64,” he writes.

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