Some exciting news came out of the Windows Hardware Engineering (WinHEC) conference in China last week.
Microsoft has teamed up with Qualcomm and will start offering a fully-fledged version of Windows to devices with an ARM processor.
Not sure exactly why it’s so exciting? Read on to find out what this announcement means for you.
What Is an ARM Processor?
You will typically see ARM processors in small-scale consumer electronics. Smartphones, tablets, MP3 players, and wearables all use them.
The processors use Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture. RISC processors need fewer transistors to perform computing tasks. They reduce cost, power consumption, heat, and most importantly, size.
But they do have a downside. The processors are not as powerful as “traditional” processors from Intel and AMD. An Intel x86 chip will run much faster than an ARM chip with the same clock speed.
ARM and Windows: The Backstory
Back when Microsoft released Windows 8 in 2012, it made the decision to try and offer a broadly similar operating system (OS) across all devices. It was a bold move, and against the backdrop of today’s tech landscape, it looks like the right move.
But there was a problem. The ARM processors in tablets were incapable of running the full version of the OS. Regular Windows apps needed x86 chips to function.
As a result, we saw the launch of Windows RT and Modern Apps. From a consumer standpoint, this was a mistake. Windows RT looked like Windows 8, had a desktop mode, and advertised itself as a mobile version of the OS. But because of its ARM architecture, it couldn’t run apps that had formed part of the Microsoft ecosystem for more than two decades.
Microsoft argued an improved battery life and the ability to use USB peripherals while on-the-go made Windows RT a valuable additional to the Windows family, but the claims failed to convince both manufacturers and consumers.
Windows RT never caught on. Less than 12 months after hitting the shelves, Microsoft suffered a $900 million loss. Experts largely blamed the loss on unsold Window RT stock. In 2013, the Surface 2 and Nokia Lumia 2520 were the only two new devices to run the platform, and by February 2015, it was dead.
What Did Microsoft and Qualcomm Announce?
Windows RT might be dead, but Windows on ARM is very much alive thanks to the new partnership between Microsoft and Qualcomm. This time, it won’t be a watered-down version of Windows. The full version of Windows 10 will be able to run on ARM devices.
At the start, Microsoft will only support the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip. It’s due to ship in the first half of 2017.
The whole thing will be possible thanks to a Microsoft-built emulator in the OS. It will only emulate 32-bit x86 applications; there will be no 64-bit emulator. The emulation itself will only be used for application code. The OS and system libraries will remain native to 64-bit ARM binaries.
What Does the Announcement Mean for You?
That all sounds wonderful, but what does the announcement mean for you, the end user?
Is emulation risky? Perhaps. Using instructions designed for x86 chips and converting them into 64-bit can significantly hinder performance. Transmeta found that out the hard way in 2008 with its Crusoe chips.
Qualcomm is confident it won’t be a problem. Details are still hard to find, but the company thinks simply shrinking the manufacturing process to 10nm could improve performance by as much as 27 percent. It would be more than enough to offset any losses from the emulation process.
Qualcomm hopes the refined manufacturing process will also improve battery life by up to 40 percent when compared to its previous 14nm chips. In an age when people widely consider battery life to be the weak link in mobile technology, this could be revolutionary.
New ultra-lightweight laptops will probably be the first consumer devices to become available. As mentioned, they will all boast the full version of Windows 10.
Interestingly, they’ll have virtual or embedded SIM cards and providers will sell their data plans through the Windows Store. They’ll meld the portability of a smartphone with the usefulness of a regular PC.
Terry Myerson, Executive Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group, said:
Think of it as the Windows 10 customers know. Customers are asking for devices with better battery life, and with cellular connectivity. That’s why we’ve invested in this, and we’re pretty excited to be announcing it. I think that for many people it’s going to be a very delightful experience.
At the WinHEC conference, Microsoft demonstrated Photoshop running on an ARM device. But you’ll be able to run all the apps you rely on most heavily. They won’t need to be specially adapted or stripped of features. In theory, anything you can do on a desktop, you’ll be able to do on a new mobile ARM device.
Microsoft has been working hard to develop the concept of Continuum. It allows you to plug your phone into any large screen and use it as a PC.
Is this announcement the first step to allowing full desktop apps on mobile? It would make the Continuum offering a lot stronger and turn it into a real market force.
Will we ever see a Surface Phone? There’s no doubt Microsoft missed the smartphone revolution, but could they finally be about to bring out a true Android and iOS competitor that runs the full version of Windows 10? There’s no question that it would be popular.
Despite all the rumors, there’s nothing concrete. However, it’s clear this announcement makes a potential device seem more realistic than ever.
When Can You Get It?
Details aren’t easily available, but insider sources have confirmed it will not be ready in time for the Windows 10 Creators Update in March 2017.
However, it will be available sometime next year. Qualcomm will release the Snapdragon 835 chip before next summer. Expect the first devices to be available shortly after its launch.
A Glimpse Into the Future?
Will Microsoft’s second attempt at taking Windows onto ARM processors be successful? At the moment, it seems like the company is on the right track.
Until the first devices get into the hands of reviewers, we won’t know for sure. But it’s clear Microsoft firmly believes this is the next step in the quest to have a single version of Windows for every platform.
Is Windows 10 on ARM going to be a breakthrough? Let us know what you think in the comments below.