Watch out Intel and AMD, power efficient ARM processors will soon be able to run Windows
At CES 2011, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer showed off an early build of a next generation Windows operating systemrunning on an ARM architecture CPU. This week at Microsoft’s MIX Developer Conference in Las Vegas, the company gave developers a surprise Easter egg — apreview build of Internet Explorer 10 and its underlying version of Windows were running on a 1 GHz ARM processor.
Samsung Electronics (005930), Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN), Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM), NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA), and other ARM chipmakers have all been hard at work cooking up power savvy multicore offerings, which would be perfect for a netbook or notebook.
Versus similarly clocked x86 processors from Intel or AMD, ARM processors would likely squeeze out an hour or two of extra battery life. While die shrinks and the ever-rising leakage current may eventually largely negate this advantage, in the short term ARM presents the first compelling consumer alternative to x86 in decades.
Windows 8 is expected to insert Microsoft’s Ribbon UI element into more locations, including Windows Explorer. It is also expected to have deeper touch integration and tie together the PC version of Windows with the Metro UI that Microsoft developed for the defunct Zune and Windows Phone 7.
But the addition of ARM support is perhaps the most anticipated feature.
While ARM currently offers power advantages, how compelling a buy Windows ARM portables will be still remains to be seen. By offering base Windows support, including access to its Office suite and other enterprise tools, Microsoft makes ARM accessible to the everyday consumer.
But exactly how far Microsoft is able to go with its compatibility efforts remains to be seen. If Microsoft can add ARM support for the Direct X and sound libraries, for example, it would be a relatively trivial exercise for developers to recompile their executables for ARM-architecture Windows 8 computers.
Microsoft makes the world’s most used development environment, Microsoft Visual Studio. By adding tools to make it quick and easy to switch from x86 to ARM builds, Microsoft could make applications compatibility complaints largely a moot point.
Likewise, if Microsoft can embed an ARM-specific virtual machine in the OS with an x86 emulation layer, it might be possible to run native x86 apps, as is, without recompilation. This would be helpful in cases where a company didn’t have the source and the application developer was unresponsive or unwilling to make the change. Implementing the same sort of system to provide ARM emulation in x86 Windows would be even more helpful to ARM, because it would allow developers to effectively target the more efficient ARM architecture, while ignoring x86.
Ultimately the question also still remains how low Intel can price its options and how big the true gap in power efficiency will be. Unlike in the past, Intel may now find its pricing ability hindered by new international scrutiny that prevents it from resorting to anti-competitive arrangements to try to stomp out pesky rivals like ARM. But the exact picture is unclear.
Even more unclear is the fate of Microsoft tablets. Even if ARM takes off in the notebook space, it may do little to help Microsoft sell Windows tablets, with Apple and Android so deeply entrenched. In that regard, Microsoft may find that it’s just given ARM a free ride to major expansion. If that’s the case Microsoft’s customers should still reap minor gains — a positive for the company — but Microsoft itself may not make significant in-roads in its market expansion hopes.