In an unexpected move, Microsoft tonight announced a major new partnership with Qualcomm to port Windows 10 to ARM. No, not Windows 10 Mobile. Real Windows 10 on a new generation of portable PCs.
“What we’re really providing here is choice,” Microsoft executive vice president Terry Myerson told me earlier this week. “And Qualcomm chipsets have two major advantages that our PC maker partners and customers have been asking for: Incredible battery life and efficient, integrated cellular connectivity.”
Of course, you may be thinking, hold on a second here. I’ve read this story before. This is just Windows RT again, right?
This is full Windows 10 for PCs, not some stripped down version. It’s Windows 10 Home and Pro, on ARM. And Windows 10 Enterprise, with all the functionality that businesses expect, including domain join. This is Windows RT done right.
Even better, Windows 10 on ARM will supply a long-rumored feature: The ability to run 32-bit Win32/x86 desktop applications—Apple iTunes, Adobe Photoshop, Google Chrome, whatever—directly on the system, unchanged.
Two major technological changes have made this miracle possible. First, Qualcomm’s System on a Chip (Soc) designs have improved so dramatically in the past four years that their performance rivals that of mainstream Intel Core chipsets for PCs. And even better, Microsoft has developed an emulation technology that allows Win32 applications to launch and run unmodified on ARM-based PCs. And to do so with what I am assured is excellent performance.
According to Mr. Myerson, where ARM-based PCs really exceed their Intel-based equivalents from a power management perspective is that they provide a much lower idle power draw. “Basically, they hold their charge longer when sitting unused in a bag,” he told me. In use, with the screen on, the experience was “similar,” he said.
But ARM chipsets also provide integrated cellular modems, enabling what Microsoft calls not just pervasive connectivity, but everywhere connectivity. And to support smartphone-style connectivity on these new PCs, Microsoft will sell data connectivity directly from the Windows Store, and will change Windows 10 so that it can intelligently move between Wi-Fi and cellular networks on the fly. Users will be able to provision and use cellular data from a variety of sources, I was told.
“Device makers have been requesting this,” Mr. Myerson told me, noting that the first ARM-based Windows 10 PCs would be mobile devices, like laptops. But this doesn’t signal an end to the Intel era, he said, Instead, PC makers and customers could choose based on their needs, and thanks to the Win32 emulation technology, application compatibility won’t be the problem it was in the past. Naturally, those with high-performance needs—gaming PCs or mixed reality, for example—will continue to choose Intel (or AMD).
As rumored, this functionality will require Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 835 SoC and, as such, it will be late 2017 or sometime next year before such devices are shipping in volume. In other words, this isn’t happening in the Windows 10 Creators Update timeframe. Instead, this will be a feature of the next version of Windows 10, which is expected in late 2017.
“The natural timeline for devices is normally about two years,” Myerson told me. “But what we’re doing is developing this technology in the open, rather than doing it with a more limited group under NDA. So we’ve decided to come here to China and reveal our plans. Hardware makers will create great devices on their own timelines. Some can do amazing work in a year [meaning late 2017], while some will begin shipping in early 2018.”
Naturally, I had to ask about Windows 10 Mobile and Surface phone.
After all, rumors about a Surface phone, perhaps one that could run Windows desktop applications when docked with Continuum, have been making the rounds for months. If not years.
“Today we are announcing support for PCs on Qualcomm Snapdragon SOCs,” I was told.
Right. But what about the future?
“Today we are announcing support for PCs on Qualcomm Snapdragon SOCs.”
The suggestion here, I suppose, is that some future version of the Win32 emulation technology could be made to run on Windows 10 Mobile. Since Windows 10 Mobile is, after all, a variant of Windows 10.
But I think there is a more intriguing possibility afoot and it’s one that Mary Jo Foley and I arrived at on Windows Weekly back in September (if I remember correctly). Perhaps Surface phone isn’t a phone in the traditional sense. Perhaps it is, instead, just a new kind of PC with a small—for PCs; I’m hearing 6-inches—screen. A Surface Mobile, if you will.
That, of course, is just speculation. But Windows 10 on ARM—full Windows 10 on ARM—is real. And it’s happening. And I am suddenly very excited for a future in which portable PCs can be true best-of-breed devices that meld the best of the PC with the best of today’s mobile devices, and do so in a way that isn’t burdened by compromise.
We live in exciting times.