What's the future of Microsoft's ARM-based tablets?

A few years back, Microsoft took an ambitious step to build a version of Windows that would run on ARM-based processors. At the time, this was a huge move, as many expected this new operating system, called Windows RT, to challenge the standard that Intel and AMD were the only vendors who could produce laptop-class processors. With several well known ARM vendors such as NVIDIA and Qualcomm producing the chips, there was hope that ARM-based devices would rival those made by Intel and AMD at the low end of the market.

Microsoft took the big first step and launched the Surface RT (now simply referred to as Surface by the company), and it flopped hard. With a $900 million writedown, the tablet missed on every expectation set by Microsoft. But the company kept pushing forward and offered up the Surface 2 about a year ago, which seems to have sold better, but Microsoft has not said much in terms of shipments.

On Microsoft's website, the Surface 2 in some SKUs consistently goes in and out of stock. This is highly unlikely to be because of a sudden increase in demand, as it is likely attributed to a weaning of inventory.

Historically, Microsoft has launched updated ARM-powered tablets in October. The original Surface launched on Oct. 26, 2012, and the Surface 2 was released on Oct. 22, 2013. So far, there have not been any rumors of Microsoft launching a new tablet this month, which means that the company's latest  Windows RT offering will be more than a year old this holiday season. There is still plenty of time to announce such a device, but so far the rumor mill has been quiet.

And then there is the information posted by Mary Jo Foley, friend of Neowin, who states that one of her sources said that Microsoft is moving away from ARM devices and will focus on Intel devices such as the Surface Pro 3. And as we noted earlier today, Microsoft made it very clear that it is building another Surface Pro, but company officials haven't said anything about any ARM tablets.

The Surface mini that would have run on an ARM processor, but that device never hit shelves. In fact, the device in that iteration is dead. 

So what is the future of ARM for Windows tablets? Every OEM has moved away from the platform in favor of Intel Atom chips, as they give consumers more options with the ability to run desktop apps. So with Intel able to scale down effectively and compete head-to-head with ARM chips, is there really a need for both? More so, at this point, why would you chose an ARM chip over and Intel one if battery life is comparable and clearly price is not an issue?

If OEMs are not buying into the ARM platform, Intel is able to compete effectively, and your own tablets do not seem to be doing extraordinarily well to justify the significant expense, why would you continue to support the platform? That's the big question we are waiting for Microsoft to answer, and with no mention of ARM at the Windows 10 announcement, although it was not expected to be talked about at that event, it does seem logical that big changes are occurring with Microsoft's tablet strategy.

We should hopefully know the answer soon about the future of ARM. If Microsoft does not launch a new ARM device before the holiday season, then all eyes will be to see how the company handles Windows 10 for ARM devices. When we find out the answers to these two questions, the future of ARM will be much clearer.

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