What it is: Microsoft and its partners are working to bring Windows-powered devices on ARM processors.
Microsoft revealed their vision for always connected PCs that have long battery life yet retain the familiarity of Windows. To attain this goal, Microsoft is developing Windows to run on ARM processors like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor.
Of course, Microsoft already has Windows running on ARM processors using an operating system called Windows RT. The big reason why Windows RT flopped was because developers had to create programs specifically for Windows RT. If you wanted to run ordinary Windows software on Windows RT devices, you couldn’t.
If Microsoft can create a Windows PC, powered by ARM processors, that can still run Windows software, they could create a new family of PCs. The big difficulty is getting ARM processors to run Windows software designed for x86 processors created by Intel and AMD. One solution is to force developers to rewrite and compile their code for ARM processors, which is what Microsoft did with Microsoft Office. However, this is time-consuming and recreates the same problems of Windows RT all over again. Developers aren’t going to spend time developing for Windows RT until the market expands, and the market won’t expand without software.
A far more difficult approach is to emulate x86 processors on ARM processors. A program called Virtual PC for the Macintosh used to do this when the Macintosh used a PowerPC processor. The PowerPC processor would emulate a x86 processor to run Windows on a Macintosh. Unfortunately, emulation is slow. Even worse, ARM processors are typically slower and less powerful than x86 processors although that’s slowly changing. For emulation to work, ARM processors would need to become far more powerful than x86 processors and that’s probably not going to happen since x86 processors have a head start and can keep improving at the same rate as ARM processors.
So where does that leave Microsoft’s Windows on ARM project? They absolutely must solve this software dilemma or wind up repeating their Windows RT fiasco all over again.
Here’s one way Apple is approaching ARM processors. Besides making their own ARM processors that are faster than anything on the market, Apple also has plans to recompile code automatically. When developers post programs on the Mac App Store, Apple can automatically recompile the code for ARM processors. Now developers don’t have to spend the time to rewrite their programs themselves.
This would allow Apple to offer the Macintosh on ARM processors. If Apple can get their ARM processors to run at least equally as Intel processors that are currently used in the Macintosh, people could buy a Macintosh running an ARM processor and have access to plenty of software rights from the start. This avoids the problem of Windows RT. The key is making sure ARM processors can be at least equal in power to x86 processors.
If Apple can get the macintosh to run on ARM processors acceptably, they could simply create a new class of Macintosh computers. Then the Macintosh would also be able to run iOS apps as well.
The technical challenges in getting a PC to run on ARM processors is difficult, but not impossible. The bottleneck lies with getting software to run on ARM processors. How Microsoft solves this problem will go a long way towards bringing PCs on ARM processors, unless Apple gets there first.