The general release of Windows 8.1 was rolled out on October 17th, 2013, but the lack of media buzz around this significant upgrade to the Microsoft platform was extraordinary. I’ve read several opinions that say that the newest wave of Atom-based Windows 8 tablets make Windows on ARM a redundant, crippled, and senseless platform for Microsoft to support. I don’t agree.
Here's how the logic works: The latest round of Atom processors are nearly as cool and efficient as ARM. They don’t require fans, they deliver great battery life, and they also support legacy Intel Architecture (IA) code. This means they address all of the advantages that ARM brings, while avoiding the one major liability — the lack of legacy Classic desktop app support.
This logic overlooks important details. On consumer-oriented tablet devices, ARM has an advantage and removes most of the traditional liabilities of the Intel Windows platform. Over the last five years, I’ve owned and reviewed dozens of Android and iOS mobile devices. It's become routine for me to factory reset, reconfigure, or perform major OS upgrades. Although Microsoft will get a lot of bad press for the way the Windows 8.1 update rolled out, the other platforms can’t really throw stones. Let's be honest, death, taxes, and Microsoft blowing it on SP1 releases are three certainties in life, and Windows 8.1 is not where they’re going to break this streak.
My experience with the difficulties of upgrading Surface RT from Windows 8.1 preview to general release highlights the difference between ARM mobile devices and Intel platforms. In particular, performing a refresh and even a full-factory reset were dead simple, quick, and far less of a hassle than trying the same thing on legacy Intel platforms. PC vendors, Intel, and Microsoft have all come up with various schemes to make this kind of thing easier, with varying degrees of success. IT professionals know that once you lose a real PC, getting it back to exactly the state it was in before the disaster can be a challenge.
Atom-based Windows 8 tablets are real PCs, and so they’re just as prone to these issues as any Intel Core platform. They have the legacy ability to run Intel x86 code — but only the most basic. More powerful Classic apps are still going to require Core CPU performance. However, despite the fact that Atom isn't powerful enough to run apps like Photoshop, AutoCAD, and other programs that require true 64-bit Intel multi-core processing, they're perfectly capable of running the true Intel code that you do not want to execute, like virus and malware apps. Atom has some “improvements” that might be considered huge liabilities on closer inspection. The sole advantage that I see of Atom tablets is the ability to run VPN software, which is something that could surely be addressed on ARM platforms.
The Surface 2 indicates that Microsoft doesn’t see ARM as a dead end. My experience with upgrading RT to Windows 8.1 supports this. Troubleshooting a Microsoft-built product with a Microsoft OS through Microsoft support was far easier than trying to get support for my Lenovo Yoga. Because the apps are all default apps or Modern Apps, and because my personalized settings are stored in the cloud, I was back to my defaults quickly after a refresh or factory restore. The small local storage of mobile devices insures that big data gets offloaded to cloud or removable storage — in my case, a 64 GB MicroSD — so, I didn’t lose any irreplaceable data. This is the kind of recovery and data protection that makes mobile computing more robust, despite less powerful hardware.
Contrast that to TechRepublic blogger Deb Shinder, who had the same problems with her Surface Pro as I had with RT. She was prepared for Intel-specific issues and had media and keys ready to reinstall. However, she still wasn’t completely back to her original state after two days. The simplicity of ARM platforms is as much an advantage as it is a liability.
Beyond that, working with Surface support illustrated that most IT pros who complain about the limits of RT are simply unfamiliar with how powerful the Classic back-end is. I asked the tech if there was a Microsoft course on Windows 8 administration, and he was unsure. There are a whole suite of new commands, utilities, and techniques that allow you to troubleshoot the guts of Modern from the Classic OS, I just don’t think most of us know them yet.
Microsoft is on the right track with ARM and RT. It makes a lightweight device that will run cool for hours, that's quick and easy to recover to a previous state, and has world-class manufacturer support behind it. RT keeps Microsoft in the game for mobile devices that will eventually show up as BYOD devices in the enterprise, and IT pros need to plan for that.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.