Windows on ARM? Logical. Windows on ARM in 2013? That's an Eternity from Now

By  |  Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:14 am

Numerous news sources are reporting that Microsoft plans to demo a version of Windows that runs on low-power ARM chips–rather than the x86 processors that Windows has been (mostly) synonymous with since its inception–at CES next month. Here are reports from Ian King and Dina Bass of Bloomberg, Don Clark and Nick Wingfield of the Wall Street Journal, and Ina Fried of All Things D.

I was startled by the news–until I thought it over, whereupon it didn’t seem so surprising any more. For decades, x86 processors (mostly from Intel and AMD) have been inside most computers that mattered, and so the fact that Windows ran on them was a virtue. (In fact, when Microsoft ported Windows NT to other CPUs in the 1990s–DEC’s Alpha and MIPS–the new versions turned out to be irrelevant, and so the company pulled the plug.)

But what happens if tablets and other new-wave computing devices become serious rivals to traditional PCs? x86 as it stands today isn’t especially well-suited to tablets, since it wasn’t designed from the ground up for energy efficiency and small form factors. (That was supposedly one reason why HP pretty much lost interest in its own Windows tablet and bought Palm’s Web OS.)

And even if Intel and AMD start to build x86 processors designed with new types of devices in mind–and they will–being x86-only lashes Windows to those companies’ product road maps. It doesn’t let Microsoft control its own destiny.

The one aspect about this news which is (very) surprising is one tidbit in Clark and Wingfield’s story: Even though Microsoft will supposedly show the ARM version of Windows, the new edition reportedly won’t be ready for a couple of years. That’s an eternity–and it means that Windows might not truly be competitive as a tablet operating system until some time in late 2013. (And even a Windows that runs on ARM chips won’t be competitive unless Microsoft radically reworks its interface and third-party developers build tablet-friendly applications.)

If all this news is accurate, it means Microsoft has been awfully slow to figure out where the computing world is going and start marching in that direction. A truly prescient Microsoft would have figured out some of this stuff back in 2006 or thereabouts–or at least by 2007, when the iPhone came out–and would be shipping Windows for ARM right now.

Speaking of the iPhone, Apple pulled off the evolution of OS X almost flawlessly over the past few years, starting in 2005, when it moved OS X from PowerPC chips to Intel ones. In 2007, it released an ARM version of OS X with an all-new interface, and everything was downsized to fit on the iPhone. In 2010, it took that iPh0ne version (now known as iOS) and created a variant for the iPad. All of this was hard work, but Apple didn’t start talking about any of it until the new versions were nearly ready to go.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens if Windows begins to move in a similar direction–but Microsoft, in its Microsoftian fashion, starts telling the world about its plans years in advance.


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14 Comments For This Post

  1. HybridWeb Says:

    2013 – thats got to be a mistake. The one mistake that Apple competitors make is in shooting for where Apple is at the moment, instead of where Apple is going to be.

    Granted, that isn't so easy to determine. So if you want to be a follower, you'd better be agile, and responding in 2013 to 2010's tech isn't agile.

  2. kevinkrewell Says:

    It's not just Microsoft that's playing catch up – it's Intel and AMD as well.

    Intel had an ARM processor and sold it to Marvell. AMD had a low power MIPS processor and sold it to Raza Micro (now part of NetLogic). Both companies seem to think that there's one instruction set to rule them all – x86. And x86 is tied to a log of legacy logic in the form of chipsets. Even with higherl levels of integration and smaller process nodes, there's a lot of extraneous gates tied to the PC legacy.

    Two years is a long time in this market, but it would take two years for developers to port their programs to an ARM-based Windows platform. What would Windows be without Microsoft Office, or a myriad of other programs that you expect from a full OS.

    It looks like Microsoft is taking a different approach to tablets – not as over-sized phones, but smaller PCs.

  3. samirsshah Says:

    rather than eternity, 2013 is about right, that is when iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 start having scale out problems.

  4. David Says:

    What are you basing that on? I would, in fact, argue the opposite for iOS. It shares its core with OS X which doesn't have any scaling problems with which I am familiar.

    I submit that iOS is going to scale out with respect to ram, CPU and storage with no issues.

    The two unknowns, to me anyway are the newbies, Android and Windows Phone 7.

  5. dholyer Says:

    Dumping Intel and AMD for ARM CPU's in 2013, that sounds as responsible as our federal government creating new jobs for free. To me it sounds like Microsoft is going for a tax reduction ploy. Change the brains of what Computers works on will give a boost in employment. And you know who wants to boost the employment totals, but it may only be for a year or two.

    Who else out there thinks besides something new grabbing head lines for a month this idea is a ploy to bump up employment for a short time. What mekes this idea sound more solid is Bill Gates now saying we should all pay more taxes. If you pay more taxes who gets more money and who gets less. I do not think Microsoft or even the milk man will be getting bigger paychecks.

    ARM chips in ways can be more efficient, but a bloated Fed only hinders freedom by creating more rules to look productive and look like the money they take from you is being used and not wasted.

    How about ARM chips that run x86 or x64 code and over time change the CPU hardcode instruction set to ARM standings. The x86 to ARM code can mostly be recoded by computers, the paper shufflers are only there to validate the reason they need to get paid.

  6. Collins Says:

    Your comment is so mangled, I can only ask you: Can I have what you were smoking as you typed?

  7. dholyer Says:

    Just as that last comment posted a new thought popped into my head, Since Apple is now starting to do Apple OS for Intel chips, since the Motorola 6800 series chips are unable to reach Intel like speeds. Is Microsoft dumping Intel coding to say competitive and diffrent from Apple.

    Plus it is rumored that ARM CPU's with RISC coding can reach 20GHz and maybe 50GHz which may give a few more years for CPU powered computers as density packing is expected to reach the Atomic level of density packing (Moore's Law from 1973).

    And when that point is reached then here comes Quantum Computing.

  8. Frank Says:

    A truly prescient Microsoft would have figured out the direction of mobile computing somewhere around the StrongARM-based Newton MessagePad 2000 and the Handspring Visorphone. Soon afterward, the Handspring/Palm Treos were gaining traction and Intel had bought the StrongARM designs and facility. By then, it wasn't that hard to see where things would go, just the timeframe for the technology to develop.

  9. Collins Says:

    2013? WTF are they thinking?!

    The world is bound to oblivion in 2012, for Pete's sake!

  10. dholyer Says:

    There is some of us that do not think that the Mayan's can predict the December 21st, 2012 happenings. I have never herd any thing about calender changes in the Roman calendar in the dark ages of Europe. I have a greater fear of November 6th, 2012 and the fear that America will be destroyed if a single person is elected as our leader then. I left out names because this is not a political blog, and you readers can fill in the blanks.

  11. emploi au maroc Says:

    Yeah I do agree with you dholyer

  12. annonce chien Says:

    pas mal le processeur , il aura sa place je pense

  13. marrakechpascher Says:

    windows ? heh this is for newbies :p

  14. Microsoft CRM Says:

    I think this is a kind of AMD athelon procoesser !
    it is rumored that ARM CPU's with RISC coding can reach 20GHz and maybe 50GHz which may give a few more years for CPU powered computers as density packing is expected to reach the Atomic level of density packing (Moore's Law from 1973). But still i like the concept 😉