Too big to fail? Microsoft, ARM, and Windows 8.

In Microsoft's handing of Windows 8 on ARM are we seeing a desperate attempt for a company past its prime trying to grab market-share?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Locking down Windows 8 on ARM will not serve Microsoft well.

Locking down Windows 8 on ARM will not serve Microsoft well.

In 1912, three of the ten biggest companies in the world were J&P Coats, Pullman, and U.S. Steel. They were giants in their day. Today, they're either business history footnotes or shadows of their former selves. Why in the world should we think Microsoft will be any different?

I wrote recently about Microsoft trying to block any other operating system from running on Windows 8 ARM-powered devices . While Ed Bott think that seeing this as an attack on Linux and other operating systems is FUD, I don't think that's the point.

I don't see Linux being attacked by this move. I see Linux supporters being annoyed at it--I know I am--but attacked, afraid? No.

Sure as Bott writes "The Secure Boot requirements apply only to OEMs who sell an ARM-based device and Windows 8 as a complete package." and that "If you disable Secure Boot on a Windows 8 ARM tablet, you have effectively bricked it." So, yes you can take this as attack on people who want to switch operating systems, but it's 2012. Now, if Microsoft was trying this trick with x86 PCs, it would be a different story, but Microsoft has backed off from that position. So, is really it that important to Linux that Microsoft is trying to keep it off Windows 8 ARM devices?

No, I don't think so. Today Microsoft can't dictate terms to the computer industry the way they once did. In the 1990s, Microsoft could call up an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and tell them what they could or couldn't ship on their PCs, how much they would pay for the privilege, and they could take it or die.

That was then. This is now. While the U.S. courts found in 2001 that "Microsoft had a monopoly in the market for Intel-compatible personal computer operating systems," the company was only slapped on the wrist. It might have been better for Microsoft in the long run if the courts had insisted that the company be broken up. As it was, Microsoft continued with business as usual. But, the world was shifting under Microsoft's feet and even now the company hasn't caught up with those changes.

While Microsoft continued with business as usual open-source software became more and more important. Even though Microsoft wiped out Netscape, despite the court decision, it was unable to crush Firefox. While Linux was never able to gain a large share of the desktop, it's been taking over the rest of the computing stack. Supercomputers, edge servers, the cloud, data center servers, smartphones, tablets, you name it, Linux is kicking Microsoft's rump and taking names.

In the meantime, Apple came back out of no-where and is now a major end-user computing power. Indeed, if you count iPads as PCs, as the market research firm Canalys does Apple is on track to become the world's number one computer vendor. According to Canalys, Apple will "overtake HP to become the leading global PC vendor before the second half of 2012. Pads, and particularly the iPad, have radically changed the dynamics of the PC industry over the last year, already propelling Apple into second place in the worldwide PC market in Q3 2011."

What's that, iPads aren't PCs? No, they sure don't look like them, but people are using iPads exactly like PCs. Indeed, if you really want, thanks to programs like LogMeIn and OnLive Desktop, you can run Windows 7 apps on an iPad.

Why would you want to though? As Google points out with their push for Chromebooks, which runs the Chrome Web browser on top of Linux in ChromeOS, there are plenty of Web-based applications that you can use with barely any local operating system at all.

What I'm getting at is that Microsoft owned, and still owns the PC business, but that the PC business itself isn't what it used to be. We're replacing PCs themselves with tablets and smartphones. We're replacing local programs, like Microsoft money maker Office, with Software as a Service (SaaS) programs such as Google Docs.

These programs don't run just on PCs, they run on all kind of devices, so really who cares that Microsoft wants to keep Linux off one specific platform? Sure, it's annoying, but it's not the big deal it once was.

Indeed the better question is where in this new world, will Microsoft find a home? Yes, they are trying to move to tablets and smartphones, but Windows 8 is too little too late. Indeed, PCs and local-based computing in general is becoming less important. Despite these sea-changes, some Microsoft executives seem to have thought: "Why not pull out an old trick from our barrel-insist that vendors who want Windows 8 on ARM can only use them for Windows. After all that approach used to work, so it will today right? Right!?"

Wrong. Things have changed. I can't imagine anyone is going to insist on Windows 8 on their smartphone or tablet. Indeed, I think by insisting that OEMs lock down their devices to Windows 8, they'll find that they'll alienate some of their partners. In 2012, Microsoft can't afford to play hard ball with OEMs. If Microsoft insists on acting like it's the 1990s and they get to call the shots, well, they do can join J&P Coats, Pullman, and U.S. Steel in business history's trash can.

If I were Microsoft's CEO-a truly frightening thought!--I'd just pull its draconian Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) Secure Boot requirements from both Intel and ARM architectures and be done with it. Seriously, only a handful of users will ever put Linux or another operating system anyway on Windows 8 ARM devices anyway and I'd make OEMs, Microsoft's critics, and developers happier.

Related Stories:

Linux won't be locked out of Windows 8 PCs, but FUD continues

Microsoft to lock out other operating systems from Windows 8 ARM PCs & devices

Leading PC makers confirm: no Windows 8 plot to lock out Linux

Linux Foundation proposes to use UEFI to make PCs secure and free

Free Software Foundation urges OEMs to say no to mandatory Windows 8 UEFI cage

Editorial standards