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FAQ: WOA vs. x86, which Windows tablet to pick?

Much depends on how 'free' Office apps will be on ARM-based tablets

IT managers weighing the pros and cons of picking either an upcoming Windows on ARM (WOA) tablet or an x86-based Windows 8 tablet still face a number of unknowns.

Many analysts assume that WOA tablets will cost less, be lighter and have a longer battery life than an x86- or x64-based tablet from Intel or AMD. But Microsoft has also made it clear that legacy Windows-based apps, widely used in enterprises, won't work without being updated to run on a WOA tablet. (WOA models are expected to be out late this year.)

Given that issue, does buying a WOA tablet make sense? Ultimately, it depends on how users -- or the IT staffers deciding on tablets for workers -- plan to use a Microsoft tablet: Will it be more like a traditional computer that generates information or as a consumption device -- a kind of "glass window to look into apps?" as analyst Jack Gold at J. Gold Associates put it.

To sort through some of those issues, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Won't a WOA tablet's up-front cost be cheaper than an X86 or X64 tablet running Windows 8? Analysts see the prevalence of ARM-based chips in tablets already on the market as a sign that they will be cheaper for Microsoft to use in WOA tablets. ARM is widely used now in smartphones, as well as in Android tablets and even the highly popular iPad from Apple.

Just how much hardware savings will be is not at all clear. Gold and Al Hilwa don't envision WOA tablets selling in the $200 range like the Kindle Fire from Amazon, but they figure ARM-based tablets would start at prices below the entry-level $499 cost of the iPad.

Part of the reason for that is because Windows is considered a heavy-duty OS, meaning the processor and memory would have to be powerful -- read more expensive -- than what's seen in many low-cost tablets, Gold said.

But won't WOA tablets have free Office 15 apps like Excel and PowerPoint? If that turns out to be true, then WOA tablets would almost certainly be cheaper than X86 tablets, analysts said. Nobody was ready to venture a guess as to how much cheaper. But given the cost of Office, WOA tablets could be $100 to $200 cheaper per device.

Hilwa believes Microsoft actually means to offer Office 15 apps for free in a WOA computer or tablet; Gold disagreed, saying he would be surprised if Office 15 really comes for free.

In a blog, Microsoft has said that WOA "includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote..., codenamed 'Office 15.'" Hilwa said the word 'includes' means Office 15 will be free with WOA. Microsoft would have used another phrase like "WOA supports" or "WOA will run" if it did not plan to provide the apps for free, Hilwa said.

Hilwa pointed out that he wrote an analyst note on the WOA news that was checked for accuracy by Microsoft. Hilwa's note said, "every WOA device would ship with full versions of...Office 15." Microsoft didn't balk at that wording.

But aren't others saying Office 15 won't be free in WOA? Yes. Gold, for one, said he would be "shocked" if Office 15 is free in WOA. "I can't imagine Microsoft is saying customers would [be able to] buy Office 15 for free, with full-blown Office applications," Gold said. "That cost alone would likely pay for the cost of the tablet hardware."

Does it make sense for Microsoft to give away the family jewels like that, given the value of Office to Microsoft's bottom line? Hilwa sees the idea of a free Office suite in WOA as Microsoft's way of prodding people into buying ARM-based devices since Office is already used by millions of people globally.

Since Microsoft is already late to the touchscreen tablet party, it makes sense to try and pull users away from rival tablets with the promise of Office, Hilwa said. "Given that Microsoft is coming late to the tablet battles, having a differentiated offering such as full PC-style management as well as included Office apps may be critical to the early success of the [WOA] platform with potential users," Hilwa wrote in a note to his IDC clients.

In an interview, Hilwa added that since legacy Windows apps won't run on WOA, customers will need an incentive to move to ARM. Office would be that incentive.

Note: Microsoft did not respond to questions about whether Office 15 will be truly free.

If end users aren't paying for Office 15 apps in WOA, then manufacturers will likely be absorbing that cost, analysts said. Hilwa speculated that having tablet manufacturers cover the Office 15 licensing costs could be synonymous to Apple getting big up-front payments from wireless carriers for the right to sell and subsidize the cost of the iPhone.

"It's going to be fascinating to see how Microsoft monetizes the writing off of the revenue for those Office apps in WOA," Hilwa said.

Back to the hardware: Is ARM is really better, costs aside? Unknown. Gold said it remains to be seen how a WOA tablet will run video and other rich-media applications. But given how ARM has performed thus far in tablets and hundreds of millions of smartphones, it appears to be more power-efficient than what Intel has so far offered.

"WOA has got to run better than all the other tablets on the market, and that includes Android and iPad as they run in six to nine months from now," Gold said.

Even if the hardware's up to par, the fact that existing Windows apps won't run on WOA is a problem, right? No question about it. Companies that need legacy apps based on Windows won't be able to use them on WOA devices without retooling. That means development costs are involved.

"The major disadvantage in picking ARM on a Microsoft tablet would be that big businesses with lots of apps that run on Windows PCs today won't run [those apps] on WOA," Hilwa said. "The businesses can rewrite their apps for WOA, sure. But it's going to be a while before the app portfolio catches up. It gets really complicated."

Gold said some of the compatibility issues are still unknown. "Compatibility of apps with WOA will be the major issue for businesses," he said. "Any old apps running on Windows 7 probably will run on Windows 8 if it's an Intel machine, and probably won't if it's ARM-based. And many companies are still running Office 2007, which is unlikely to run on ARM."

So how do I decide between ARM-based devices and Intel? It boils down to how the tablet will be used, Gold said. "The fundamental question with WOA versus X86 is what does a business want to do with these tablets?"

If the WOA tablet really is cheaper and comes with free Office 15 apps, it could be quite attractive compared to an X86 tablet. In particular, WOA tablets could be popular among outdoor workers and companies seeking rugged, portable hardware because replacement costs could be kept low.

Gold said IT shops need to weigh whether their users are going to primarily generate data on tablets, as they do with traditional laptops, or will primarily use them as consumption devices to watch video and view corporate apps. The latter scenario, he said, would favor a WOA tablet.

"If you are trying to run real corporate applications in the cloud through Citrix, then the tablet can be just a glass window into your app," he said.

That puts the ball in the WOA court.

Still not convinced you know enough about the tablet choice at hand? Given that the devices won't ship until late this year anyway, you've got time to make up your mind -- as soon as Microsoft weighs in with more info.

Hello, Redmond?

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

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