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 IDC analyst 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.

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