Microsoft set to leap on tablet bandwagon before it rolls out of sight

If partner in Wintel expands to ARM, it might be barely in time

It's big news this week that Microsoft may be introducing a version of Windows that runs on processors from ARM -- which rules the tablet market -- rather than longtime partner Intel.

Microsoft did sign a deal that would let it design its own embedded ARM-based processors and has the really unappealing Windows CE available that will run on ARM and other embedded systems.

Wintel is an empire -- some say a dictatorship -- but that doesn't mean Microsoft has to be tied to the hardware side of it.

Gartner and IDC both changed their projections on how many PCs they expect will sell next year on the assumption tablets will eat as much as a third of new PC sales, and will make up as much as 10 percent of the total installed base of PCs by 2014.

PC hardware design is moving away from Wintel, and Microsoft has to respond.

The whole IT world has been sneaking away from Microsoft for years -- to Web apps and smartphones and tablets and open source and freeware and anything else it can find.

Tablets and smartphones -- which will merge into the same device within a very few years, but with the option of connecting to a larger screen -- are the next big step. Microsoft is really slow responding to the change in form factor, as it's been slow to respond to a lot of things recently.

Former chief software architect Ray Ozzie made the post-PC era the point of his exit memo on leaving Microsoft in October.

If Microsoft demos a version of Windows for ARM processors at CES in January, that will only show that Ozzie had some impact even before he left, and that someone kept the project going after he cleaned out his cubicle.

It will still take a long time to get the drivers and hardware to run on what are still grossly non-standardized tablet hardware, let alone getting anyone to admit what they really miss from this post-PC, mobile-computing era is a version of Windows they can carry with them always.

Still, it's a sign Microsoft hasn't stuck itself completely in the mud when it comes to responding -- however slowly -- to drastic changes in technology or the market for it.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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