Windows Cloud may be Microsoft's answer to Chromebooks

— 9:02 AM on January 31, 2017

Microsoft has been waging a war against Chromebooks on a number of fronts, including reducing the price of OEM Windows licenses on machines with certain specifications, working with manufacturing partners like HP to develop Windows laptops that could compete with Chromebooks on price, and negative ad campaigns. The next phase of Microsoft's campaign might be Windows Cloud, a version of the operating system that Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet speculates will only be able to run Unified Windows Platform (UWP) apps from the Windows Store. Foley goes on to predict that Windows Cloud may be released in conjunction with the Windows 10 Creators Update, scheduled for April.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. Microsoft conducted a UWP-only experiment with Windows RT, a version of Windows that ran on ARM-based hardware. The April release date that Foley predicts seems too early for the first wave of Windows Cloud machines to use the Win32-on-ARM emulation technology that  Microsoft and Qualcomm have demoed. This suggests that the new machines might carry x86 processors instead, meaning that Windows Cloud machines could potentially be offered in a wider variety of hardware configurations than the ill-fated Surface RT devices. We'd be shocked if the price tag of the first wave of Windows Cloud machines started near the high $500 asking price of the original Surface RT.

The original Microsoft Surface and its Surface 2 sequel were the most popular Windows RT devices, though that isn't saying much. The entire Windows RT program was a failure, with Microsoft absorbing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses on unsold devices. Whether RT's inability to connect with users was due to a lack of applications or the relatively anemic hardware available at the time remains an open question. When Windows RT was originally released in 2012, the Windows Store was pretty barren. While the Store still doesn't have the depth and variety of applications found in the Android and Apple app stores, UWP versions of mainstream apps like Facebook, Netflix and Kodi are all available, though.

For now, all Windows Cloud is as nebulous as its namesake. All that exists is a handful of references inside preview builds of Windows 10 and whispers from unnamed sources. If Windows Cloud devices are to launch in just a couple of months, we expect we'll have more information from Microsoft soon. While at first glance Microsoft appears to be diving into the Windows RT rabbit-hole again, the increased performance, reduced hardware cost, and improved UWP application availability since 2012 may make this attempt more likely to succeed.

Chromebooks have shown that this approach has merit. The closed-off nature of Google's Chrome OS platform is something of a turn-off for PC enthusiasts, and the lack of native applications means that AAA gaming and high-end tools for content creation and other esoteric endeavors are practically off-limits. However, not all users play 3D games or need advanced software tools, and the popularity of the Chromebook platform bears this out. In the hands of students and less-security-conscious users, this walled approach can make for devices that are substantially more secure than platforms that allow access to software that's not been screened. Anyone who's had to field tech support questions from a non-tech-savvy relative who can't stop themselves from installing every shady peer-to-peer application under the sun has probably wished for a way to handcuff that user. Blocking off Win32 apps and allowing application installation only from a curated app store could lead to major security and reliability improvements for less technologically-inclined users.

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