FAQ: Windows on ARM explained

Microsoft spells out some details of WOA, its 'touch-first,' tablet-oriented OS

In an 8,600-word epistle yesterday, Microsoft's top Windows executive pulled aside the curtain on the first version of the company's iconic OS that targets tablets.

Dubbed "Windows on ARM," or WOA for short, the new edition is a cousin, perhaps one or two or even three times removed, of the still-under-construction Windows 8 for traditional PCs.

Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division, went into great detail on the underpinnings of WOA, and along the way answered some of the questions that have been burning a hole in analysts' and users' brains for more than a year.

But what did he say, and what does it all mean? To help you better understand what Microsoft's up to, we distill the warrant on WOA to a more digestible format. We're not saying this is the end-all, be-all -- read Sinofsky in the original for that -- but it's a start.

When will WOA-powered tablets go on sale? We don't yet know.... You didn't expect Sinofsky to spill all the beans at once, did you? But he was clear that WOA was on the same release pace, more or less, as Windows 8.

"Our collective goal is for PC makers to ship WOA PCs the same time as new PCs designed for Windows 8 on x86/64," Sinofsky said.

Although Microsoft remains mum on Windows 8's launch date, most analysts expect -- and Windows 7's schedule three years ago hints at -- a release in time for the 2012 holiday season.

Do I get to see WOA before then? Not unless you're a tablet or PC maker, or an important developer.

Around the time Microsoft launches Windows 8 Consumer Preview -- it looks like that will be Feb. 29 -- the company will also distribute "a low volume of test PCs specifically designed for WOA," said Sinofsky. Developers and Microsoft's hardware partners will use these Frankenstein-esque PCs to develop on WOA and create and test hardware that may or may not end up connecting to a WOA-powered device.

No public beta, or as Microsoft calls it, "Consumer Preview," of WOA then? Exactly.

But I'll be able to buy a copy eventually? No, you're thinking of this all wrong.

WOA is, as Sinofsky said, "a new member of the Windows family," but it's not Windows 8. It's entirely new, and because it works only on ARM devices -- the processor architecture that powers most smartphones and tablets -- it will not be sold in the traditional manner you're grown to love or hate. Instead, WOA will be tied to a Microsoft-defined line of ARM tablets or PCs, powered by processors designed by Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

"Windows on ARM software will not be sold or distributed independent of a new WOA PC, just as you would expect from a consumer electronics device that relies on unique and integrated pairings of hardware and software," said Sinofsky.

In other words, WOA is to Windows as iOS is to Mac OS X: You can't go out a buy a copy of Apple's iOS, now can you?

Sinofsky keeps talking about "ARM PCs." What are those? We noticed that, too. It's almost like he had a hard time writing the word "tablet," which is what's generated the most excitement about WOA, as in, "Whoa, Windows finally on tablets."

Sinofsky used the word "tablet" just three times in his mega-missive, almost universally tying "WOA" and "PC" instead. In fact, he used the two-word combination "WOA PC" a total of 23 times in the blog.

'Windows on ARM,' or WOA for short, is the new edition of the still-under-construction Windows 8 for traditional PCs. Will it be as successful as iOS and Android?

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