Windows On Snapdragon: the promise and problem of building an iPad Pro killer

Building For The Highly Connected User Of Tomorrow

Apple iPad Pro smart keyboard
Apple

One of the potentially biggest moves this decade for Windows is the platform's move to include ARM as well as x86 support. This joint project by Microsoft and Qualcomm could be fascinating and very successful if done right — and another Windows RT if the execution is lacking. [Disclosure: Both Qualcomm and Microsoft are clients of the author] Interestingly, with the iPad Pro, Apple has shown that the market for this product exists, and that product is likely the primary competitor for what will result. 

Hardware is due in 2018, so we have plenty of time to look at the promise and potential problems with Windows on Snapdragon.

Windows RT

Windows RT was Microsoft’s first effort on ARM.  It was positioned against the iPad back when it looked like that product was going to wipe out laptops. So right from the start, the concept was based on a false assumption.

In many ways Windows RT repeated the mistake Microsoft made with Zune and, in fact, it was an almost identical scenario given the iPad was basically just a big iPod Touch. 

In both cases the strategy Microsoft needed to execute was one they had created and used successfully against the Apple Mac — embrace, extend, extinguish. But in both cases, they failed to embrace, extend or extinguish...though Zune was better than RT in the embrace part since it also predominantly did music. RT didn’t cover a significant amount of the iPad's apps or functionality and the effort failed. 

iPad Pro

There was clearly a Microsoft opportunity, however, because a significant number of early iPad users wanted to use their iPads like laptops, and the clear majority of efforts ended badly.  So, an iPad-like device but one that functioned more like a laptop was a clear need. In talking to these folks, what they wanted was a laptop that was as light and long-lasting (cell phone-like battery life) with full laptop performance. 

Windows RT wasn’t that either, but Apple created the iPad Pro — and, in a way, it missed the opportunity almost as badly as Windows RT did. Because users weren't saying they wanted a bigger iPad, they wanted something closer to a true laptop that was iPad-like. A closer offering might have been a Mac in an iPad Pro configuration but Apple didn’t want to do that, and their current strategy appears to be to eventually put the Mac onto iOS. Which will likely break their Mac customer base, much of which does photo and video editing on the platform, and is more performance oriented than iOS or ARM can support.  

Effectively both Apple and Microsoft misread the opportunity that both also clearly saw, leaving folks with this need for a laptop-like product with cell phone-like capability unmet. 

Windows On Snapdragon

So, Microsoft and Qualcomm are going to make another run at this. Let’s be clear: this won’t be a laptop killer. But it could be an iPad Pro killer if Apple doesn’t adjust their product sharply (and they must see this thing coming).

This means the product must — and currently does — support full Windows. It must have cell phone-like battery life — which it will. But it also must be design-forward, and that means it must be sexy (iPads were design-forward devices, for instance).

The price envelope is likely at or below that of an iPad Pro, given that is the target. And, fortunately, given the growth in size for iPhones, it doesn’t necessary have to embrace iPad/iPhone apps — because users tend to run these apps on their phones now. Two apps that may be exceptions? The Amazon Kindle Reader, and the Netflix movie player. 

In addition, it will need to support with a “trust zone” (which it also will have) secure HD movie downloads from services like Amazon Prime (something that x86 laptops don’t support yet).  

Since this really isn’t an iPad or a notebook, but more of a blend tightly targeted at users who value mobility over performance, shelving this product near either of the other two categories will be problematic. It will need to be presented as something very different, so that it's considered on its merits and not — like RT and Zune were — for its shortcomings.

Ironically, Steve Jobs showcased how this could be done with the iPad launch, which could have been a crippled Windows tablet or an overweight iPod, but instead was something different and amazing. 

Connectivity wild card

One new aspect of Windows on Snapdragon is always-on connectivity. This hasn't been a very popular feature in laptops — less than 10% boast this feature, and even less use it.  Users that have turned it on, however, could be another segment that might prefer a more smartphone-like product, as they clearly place higher value on this kind of connectivity.

In addition, having an always-on connection means that things that often don’t happen in a timely manner on a laptop —  such as updates or file syncing when the laptop isn’t being used — will provide a much less disruptive experience than more traditional platforms. And given a smartphone is always on, doesn’t hibernate or suspend, the user’s ability to rapidly get in and out of the product could be a killer feature for highly mobile workers. Particularly those in the military, petrochemical and field support roles. This suggests a hardened version of this thing could be incredibly popular.

The Microsoft that fielded Zune and Windows RT is a very different company than the web forward Microsoft of today, which has been executing at a far higher level. Qualcomm is new to this game, but if there's another company that knows more about smartphones, I’m not aware of them. The two firms together could certainly create an iPad killer. But while this is a very strong idea, it will need a very high level of execution — which is often had to find in even companies like Apple these days. 

We are moving into a more cloud-centric, connected world. Regardless of whether it's successful, this offering will herald that connected future.

The only question remains is: will Qualcomm and Microsoft, coupled with the firms that build the hardware, execute to assure their platform builds that future? Or will we have to wait for Google or Apple to get it right. The new Google Pixelbook provides an excellent example of what is needed in hardware design and cloud/AI direction (though not software, battery life, or connection yet), suggesting the race has started for this new category, but no one is yet truly in the lead.

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