What it is: Microsoft announced a version of Windows that runs on ARM processors that can power a new line of laptops.
In the computer world, there are two main types of processors: Intel (also known as x86 processors) and ARM processors. The main advantage of x86 processors is that they offer more power but at the cost of requiring more energy. The main advantage of ARM processors is that they require much less energy, which makes them more suitable for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. The drawback is that ARM processors aren’t as powerful as x86 processors.
However, that’s changing. Apple’s version of the ARM processor (A11) runs nearly as fast as many laptops. For a while, Intel tried to offer energy-efficient x86 processors called Atom processors, which were used in netbooks, but ultimately the Atom processor wasn’t as powerful as ARM processors nor was it as energy-efficient. As a result, few manufacturers used Atom processors for mobile devices when ARM processors were faster and more energy-efficient.
As ARM processors continue to get more powerful while x86 processors try to get more energy-efficient, it’s inevitable that ARM processors will take over the mobile market. That’s why Microsoft tried to port Windows to ARM processors with the original Surface tablets that ran Windows RT. The problem with Windows RT was that it wouldn’t run ordinary Windows programs so few people wanted it.
Now Microsoft is trying again. They recently released a new version of Windows 10 that runs on ARM processors. The idea is to run Windows on a new line of laptops that can rival tablets in battery life. While today’s x86 laptops might last 4-6 hours at the most on a single charge, an ARM-based laptop can last 8 or more hours on a single charge. By porting Windows on ARM processors, ARM-based Windows laptops will offer the long battery life of a tablet with the convenience of running traditional Windows programs on a laptop.
That’s the theory, anyway, but the reality is something else. First of all, Windows on ARM processors cannot run the latest 64-bit Windows programs. If you try to run older 32-bit Windows programs on an ARM processor, the code must be recompiled to run on ARM processors. This means the program will run slower than on an ordinary x86 Windows PC.
So here’s the problem. Microsoft is trying to sell Windows on ARM processors but you can’t run all Windows programs, which basically negates the advantage of running Windows. Second, if your Windows program does run on an ARM processor, it will likely run slower than on a regular x86 PC, so the experience may not be as smooth as you might expect. This dual problem of not running all Windows programs and running Windows programs slowly will likely confuse consumers, who expect a Windows laptop to run Windows software.
So instead of banning all Windows programs from running, which is what Microsoft did with Windows RT, Microsoft is now allowing some Windows programs to run but slowly, but not newer Windows programs. Since most people will likely be using newer Windows programs than older ones, they’ll risk buying an ARM-based Windows laptop only to find out that they can’t run their Windows programs on Windows. If that doesn’t confuse and frustrate consumers, then nothing will.
How many people will want to run Windows on ARM processors if they can’t run all their Windows programs? This is slightly better than the total ban on Windows programs that Windows RT offered. Given the confusion Windows on x86 processors offers and Windows on ARM processors offers, expect Windows laptops with ARM processors to be neglected by consumers while Microsoft wastes more time and money trying to give consumers something that doesn’t work as people might expect.