Microsoft Corp., one of the largest technology companies in existence, naturally has a lot of events. Some are focused on channel partners like you who get Microsoft products and services into the hands of customers, others cater to developers who create software that adds value to the Microsoft ecosystem, and several more speak to OEMs and engineers creating the computing products that drive productivity in business. You never know at which event Microsoft will announce something so significant that it has the potential to radically impact the entire PC industry as we know it. In this case, Microsoft chose the Windows Hardware Engineering Community (WinHEC) event in Shenzhen, China, to announce something major: Full Windows will soon be running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor.
“Let’s talk about something that more and more of our customers have been asking for, innovation for the mobile PC,” says Terry Meyerson, executive vice president of the Windows and devices group. “To build devices with great cellular connectivity and improved battery life, we see an opportunity to grow our ecosystem. So, I’m really excited to announce today that we are expanding our PC silicon partnerships with Intel and AMD by bringing Windows 10 to ARM with Qualcomm.”
Been There, Done That?
What’s wrong? Confused? Feeling like you have déjà vu? It’s not just you. After all, Microsoft did show “full” Windows running on ARM at the 2011 CES. And who can forget the Surface RT, the inevitable epic failure of a computer that ran Windows on Qualcomm and NVIDIA silicon over two generations of hardware? Even though it was “Windows,” users who adopted a Windows-on-ARM machine like the Surface RT could do everything someone with an Intel x86 Windows computer could do—except run any of the millions of popular Win32 programs that made Windows actually useful (and also significantly less secure). Unless a program was rewritten and uploaded to the Windows store, Windows on ARM couldn’t run it.
Unlike then, this time Microsoft announced something so unexpected, so incredible, and so mind-boggling that it’s surprising such an announcement came during an event like WinHEC. Starting with Redstone 3, the code name for an upcoming release of Windows in 2018, native x86 emulation within the OS will allow Windows to run on ARM processors (starting with the future Qualcomm Snapdragon 830 series) while also being able to run the entire library of Windows software, be it .NET, Win32, UWP, or what have you. More important, this move officially ends Microsoft’s dependency on Intel and AMD as the only chipmakers capable of powering Windows devices.
For those of you less keen on microprocessor architecture geek speak, it’s prudent to point out that neither ARM nor x86 is inherently better than the other. Each architecture comes from a vastly different place, in a sense starting at opposite ends of the performance spectrum.
Rather than bore you with the technical differences between reduced and complex instruction set designs, the gist is that ARM is ideal for light, portable devices like tablets, phones, and just about any device needing reduced thermals and high battery life. The x86 processor is more ideal for high-performance computing needs, particularly when heat can be managed and power is more abundant. The x86, however, is an architecture that has seen more drastic refinement over the years than a George Lucas Star Wars movie, and has evolved into an architecture scalable from low-power SoC designs to super-fast, energy-hungry workstation processors.
Traditionally, each type of processor had its place. ARM wasn’t powerful enough to run something like a desktop or notebook, and Intel wasn’t ideal for phones or any of the numerous embedded designs that power a wide range of devices. However, just as the x86 has evolved to be more power efficient, ARM’s performance potential has improved enough to match (or overlap) a similar x86’s ultra-mobile performance and battery life at half the cost.
What this means, from a competitive perspective, is a Windows tablet can’t (currently) compete with the battery life and cost of Android tablets or Chromebooks as effectively while being reliant on x86. Given Intel’s and AMD’s moves to scale back their ambitions in mobile designs with x86, it doesn’t look like x86 will be in much of a position to compete for some time. Embracing ARM, while finding a way to carry forward compatibility with legacy applications on which consumers and businesses rely, puts Microsoft in a position to continue pushing its one OS vision.