What it is: Qualcomm claims that Microsoft will start shipping Windows 10 capable of running on ARM processors by the end of the year.
After Apple introduced the iPad and wiped out the Tablet PC market, Microsoft decided to fight back by releasing Windows RT, a new operating system that could run on the more power-efficient ARM processors instead of the traditional x86 processors by Intel and AMD. Windows RT looked like Windows 8 but couldn’t run traditional Windows software. As a result, most people shied away from Windows RT devices until Microsoft abandoned Windows RT.
Now Microsoft may be trying to bring Windows 10 to ARM processors. The difference is that they may include an emulator that allows ARM processors to run x86 programs. With Windows RT, you couldn’t run any Windows programs unless the developer ported it over to Windows RT. With Windows 10, the goal is to write a program once and have it run on multiple devices (smartphones, tablets, and PCs) and multiple processors (x86 and ARM). Can Microsoft pull this off?
The goal is to create lower cost laptops with longer battery life. The key will be the ability to run Windows software. Windows RT died because of the inability to run Windows software, even though Windows RT has the Windows name in it. Windows 10 on ARM processors cannot repeat this mistake, but how can an emulator work successfully?
Back when Apple switched from PowerPC processors to Intel processors, they included a PowerPC emulator called Rosetta, which let you run PowerPC programs flawlessly on an Intel Macintosh. What made Rosetta work was that Intel processors were powerful enough to emulate a PowerPC processor so the speed difference was minimal.
Can ARM processors be just as powerful and efficient? That’s the burning question. Right now many Android smartphones offer powerful ARM processors, yet those ARM processors with higher speeds and more cores still run slower than Apple’s own customized ARM processors. To ask an ARM processor to successfully emulate an x86 processor may result in Windows programs running far slower on an ARM processor than a traditional x86 processor.
Remember that the main purpose of ARM-based PCs is to compete with lower cost laptops, which means you’ll likely get a slow PC in return for a lower price. Anyone remember when Intel tried to promote energy-efficient Atom processors to compete against ARM processors, and failed? Atom processors were commonly used on netbooks, which ran Windows programs slowly and painfully on a tiny screen with a slow processor and minimal graphics capabilities. How will tomorrow’s ARM-based laptops be any different?
Tomorrow’s ARM-based laptops will be cheaper and likely slower than even a cheap x86 based laptop. To have a slow processor run an emulator means Windows software will run even slower. Think of running AutoCAD on a netbook. It’s possible but painfully slow to make it basically impractical. That could be the user experience of running Windows software on ARM processors.
The real question is why is Microsoft even pursuing Windows on ARM when they failed once with Windows RT? Windows simply can’t compete against the iPad as a tablet or against the iPhone as a smartphone operating system. To believe one operating system can run optimally on different form factors is delusional. Microsoft’s Surface Pro devices excel as ultraportable laptops that can also behave like a tablet. Most people aren’t buying Surface Pros to use them as a tablet exclusively or even for the majority of the time. They’re buying Surface Pros for a laptop first and a tablet second.
Most likely, Microsoft will waste more time and money pursuing Windows on ARM and have little to show for it. People want to run Windows software on PCs whether they’re desktops or laptops. People don’t care what processor a PC uses just as long as it can run their software at a decent speed.
If Microsoft and Qualcomm can get Windows programs to run decently on ARM processors, what does that mean for the future of Intel processors? Somebody’s going to lose in the near future. It’s either going to be Microsoft and Qualcomm (ARM processors) or Intel and AMD (x86 processors). Whatever the case, Microsoft is essentially competing against themselves so no matter who wins, Microsoft will still wind up losing.