Microsoft Takes Another Shot at Windows on ARM

on December 9, 2016

At its Windows Hardware Engineering Community (WinHEC) event in Shenzhen, China this week, Microsoft announced a partnership with processor vendor Qualcomm that will bring Windows 10 to the ARM platform. It’s an interesting, if widely expected, move that sets the stage for some unique new Windows products going forward.

Of course, Microsoft has been here before. Back in October 2012, when the company launched the ill-fated Windows 8 for traditional X86 platforms (Intel and AMD), the company also launched the Windows RT operating system, running on Surface RT (as well as a few partner devices). This ARM-based version of the OS looked like Windows and even mostly acted like Windows. But it couldn’t do the one thing everybody expected Windows to do: Run years of legacy X86 applications. While Microsoft tried to make up for this by creating a special Windows RT version of Office, other application vendors failed to follow and, after several years of poor performance in the market, Microsoft quietly ended support for WinRT.

Emulate This
Neither Microsoft nor Qualcomm has disclosed the specifics of how Windows 10 runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor except to say this time out they’re using emulation technology. Emulation is a process that essentially tells the operating system it’s running on X86 when in fact it is running on ARM. The industry has used emulation for years, often as a stop gap measure when shifting from one technology to another. Traditionally, emulation has solved the problem of legacy apps, but at a significant cost to performance. If we believe Microsoft’s online videos of Windows 10 running on Qualcomm, there appears to be plenty of headroom in the Snapdragon processor to account for this. Performance looks robust and during the demonstration, the presenter launched and used several legacy X86 applications with no apparent performance penalties. I look forward to testing this firsthand in the future.

Why Revisit ARM?
While Microsoft’s decision to do the work required to bring Windows 10 to ARM is significant, it’s worth noting it has had a version of Windows running on the platform continuously since well before it launched, and ultimately killed, Windows RT. It’s called Windows Phone and at present, its smartphone market share is hovering around 0.2% percent, as Microsoft has all but exited the market. Clearly, Microsoft realized Windows Phone was a dead end but it felt Windows 10 on the platform could still be viable.

It’s an interesting decision and one with multiple potential implications. A primary one, cited by Microsoft in its announcement, is the desire to enable highly mobile, power efficient, and always-connected cellular PCs. That last element—always connected—is something I’ve been arguing I’d like to see from PC vendors for ages. Microsoft apparently sees Qualcomm’s chips as a key element to making this more viable in the market. The company also announced it would enable eSIM technology it says will let vendors ship products with no SIM slot, as well as let customers activate data plans on the device.

Second, the company clearly sees value in driving competition in the silicon space. Back in 2012, Windows RT was most certainly Microsoft reacting to its relative displeasure with the slow progress of X86 toward more mobile, lower-power processors. That frustration likely hasn’t entirely abated. As in all markets, competition is good for consumers and, in this case, Microsoft (and its hardware partners) are the consumers of X86 and ARM processors.

Third, Microsoft is trying to anticipate the future of personal computers. One such future may comprise the ultimate in convergence where one device acts as phone + notebook + desktop. For some time, there have been rumors of a Surface Phone; rumors that didn’t make much sense when Microsoft seemed to be abandoning Windows Phone. That version of Windows has always been a non-starter for business because it can’t run the legacy X86 apps needed by most companies. HP’s Elite X3 Windows Phone addresses that problem with its own virtualization technology. Now, Microsoft has addressed it at the OS level. That said, this solution still doesn’t address the fundamental issue that few people (especially consumers) want to replace their iOS or Android phone with one that runs Windows.

2017 Is Getting Interesting
During its keynote, Microsoft also outlined its plans with Intel around the new Project Evo; updated its campaigns around Microsoft HoloLens and the Windows Holographic Platform; and added another vendor (3Glasses) to its list of head-mounted display partners expected to ship next year. But the Qualcomm news is likely to be the most impactful in the near term. The company was deliberately vague about when new products might ship, saying simply “as early as next year.” Once we see the first products, their performance, battery life scores, and price points, we’ll have a better idea of just how big a deal Windows 10 on ARM turns out to be. I, for one, look forward to what the PC industry will cook up with this new option.