Author(s): Geoff Blaber
The notion of the PC has changed many times in the past decade. Designs have shifted from desktops to notebooks to netbooks, and from netbooks back to notebooks. Notebooks were then reinvented as thin and light Ultrabooks, only to be disrupted again by tablets, resulting in a plethora of two-in-one designs. But despite this frantic evolution, two factors have remained largely constant: the x86 instruction set and a general absence of cellular connectivity.
Microsoft's mantra of the "always connected PC" hopes to break that trend. By introducing Qualcomm to the equation, it aims to create a new level of innovation and competition, delivering systems based on Snapdragon that offer battery life of over 20 hours, 30 days of "always on" standby power and the seamless connectivity that smartphones provide.
Based on our beta testing of the Asus NovaGo, this is a fair reflection of the user experience. The long battery life and instant on dramatically changes the way the PC is used, bringing unparalleled convenience and utility. This could be transformative.
However, it's not the first time that Microsoft has sought to add Arm to the Windows ecosystem and nor is the introduction of connectivity a radical new concept. Both have been fraught with challenges. Windows RT, the first incarnation of Windows on Arm-based chipsets was a disaster — the predictable consequence of a compromised user experience. It looked like Windows but was unable to run legacy Win32 apps. The promise of connectivity worked but it was hamstrung by app limitations.
Windows 10 on Snapdragon is different in that it offers a full Windows 10 experience for most purposes. Support for 64-bit x86 software will come later to cater to AAA gamers and hardcore users. Although it uses emulation to run Win32 applications in addition to Universal Windows apps, in our experience performance is comparable to that of x86-based machines for everyday tasks. Similarly, systems based on the Snapdragon platform will feature an integrated LTE modem that offers up to gigabit LTE speeds. This is a big shift and one that Microsoft is pushing to ensure the long-term relevance of the PC.
In theory, these new systems stand to transform the PC category, but there are hurdles to overcome. Chief of these is how to sell connectivity. Historically, activation of data plans has been a major obstacle. However, the shift to unlimited and tiered data plans (in certain markets), change in government stance on Net neutrality and operator incentives arguably mean the opportunity today is different.
Nonetheless, success will need experimentation and a mix of approaches, such as sponsored data, devices sold as a service, "freemium" data pricing or even data included in the cost of the hardware, much like the Amazon Kindle model. E-SIMs and the ability to connect devices through the Microsoft Store will also be vital — a feature likely to launch later in 2018. This will enable a smoother activation process and far greater flexibility in how, when and from whom users purchase connectivity.
The connectivity conundrum won't be solved overnight, but the ecosystem of Microsoft, operators, chipset providers, manufacturers and content or service companies all have a fresh incentive to collaborate and find a solution.
The consensus is that this represents a major threat to Intel. To an extent this is true, but the reality is that everyone stands to gain from a coordinated focus on the always-connected PC. Microsoft benefits from greater competition, the prospect of new manufacturers and the reinvigoration of industry efforts in connectivity. For, Intel it represents fresh competition and a challenge to its "thin and light" credentials, but industry commitment to the concept will help establish a connected category it has tried unsuccessfully to create independently. Finally, Qualcomm can address an entirely new segment with a solution that could alter usage and consumer expectations. The Wintel alliance is definitively changing with the potential for new mobile players that bring fresh thinking and an acceleration of PC innovation cycles. A rising tide floats all boats.