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Windows May Get an ARM Twist

Windows May Get an ARM Twist

Microsoft may give its mobile aspirations a shot in the arm with a new version of Windows designed to run on ARM processors. The new OS might be Windows 8 and not a stripped-down version of Windows 7 or a beefed-up version of Windows Phone 7. "I believe we're seeing the first hints of Windows 8, which was rumored to be put out as a teaser at CES," said tech analyst Rob Enderle.

By Richard Adhikari
12/22/10 11:50 AM PT

Microsoft may unveil a version of its Windows operating system that runs on the ARM chip platform at the Consumer Electronics Show to be held in Las Vegas in Jan., according to Bloomberg.

The report cited two unnamed sources who said the software will be tailored for battery-powered devices such as tablet computers and other handhelds.

ARM chips consume less power than those from Intel or AMD, and they are used extensively in mobile devices.

Microsoft declined to comment to TechNewsWorld on the issue.

Heading Into ARM's Way

The new operating system will run on processors from Intel and AMD in addition to the ARM platform, according to the Bloomberg article. It will reportedly be modular, so that parts of it that are unnecessary for smaller, lower-power devices such as smartphones can be removed easily.

"Microsoft has been working on a version of Windows for the ARM processor for some time, but it's news to me that it's given the go-ahead to this project," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"With the early release of Tegra 2, ARM has gone multicore and can now support a complex operating system," Enderle pointed out.

The Tegra 2 is an Nvidia graphics processing unit that consists of a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU; Nvidia's ultra-low power GeForce graphics processor unit; and a 1080p high-definition video playback processor.

Microsoft has been working with ARM chips in embedded and mobile devices for several years now.

In July, the two companies signed an agreement that extended their relationship.

That led to speculation that Microsoft would offer a more complete version of Windows for the ARM platform.

Why Wrestle With ARM?

Offering a version of Windows for the ARM processor will give Microsoft more heft in the tablet and very light PC markets, Enderle suggested.

"Windows Phone 7 is too light, and Microsoft recognizes that this new platform will need to be for the next PC and also address stronger threats from Apple's iOS and Google's Chrome OS," Enderle explained.

"So, it's a rethinking of Microsoft's PC platform and not an extension of its smartphone platform," he added.

"There's been a lot of pressure for Microsoft to come out with a tablet solution," Richard Shim, a senior analyst at Display Search, told TechNewsWorld, "and this is an indication it's looking at opportunities in devices other than PCs, and at emerging secondary devices."

The new OS might be Windows 8 and not a stripped-down version of Windows 7 or a beefed-up version of Windows Phone 7.

"I believe we're seeing the first hints of Windows 8, which was rumored to be put out as a teaser at CES," Enderle said.

Microsoft's not too likely to create a new operating system from scratch because it has "already spread itself thin throughout other opportunities, and it's got other initiatives going -- such as around its synchronization technology," Shim pointed out.

The new OS will be more modular than previous Windows operating systems, and that's in line with Microsoft's road map, which strengthens the case for its being Windows 8, Enderle suggested.

Pressure From the Competition

There's speculation that the success of mobile devices on the ARM platform has spurred Microsoft to follow suit.

Google has seen considerable success with its Android mobile devices, which run on the ARM platform, and Apple's iPad also runs on ARM processors.

"Anyone that has profiled Apple knows that at some future point Apple may just drop the [Intel] x86 platform and go entirely to its own ARM architecture," Enderle suggested. "Microsoft doesn't want to be caught napping if that path turns out to be a better one."

Technical Considerations

If the reports that the new Windows OS for the ARM are true, it will also run on Intel and AMD processors. Is that feasible?

Microsoft's technology is advanced enough now for it to run an OS on different platforms, Enderle opined.

"Microsoft had a bad experience doing multiple platforms for Windows in the 1990s -- but with virtualization, much of the risk is mitigated, and it has one of the best virtualization platforms in the industry," he maintained.

Whether the new OS will help Microsoft's efforts in the mobile market or turn out to be yet another money pit remains to be seen.

Recall that Redmond failed spectacularly with the Kin smartphone, which it withdrew about two months after its launch earlier this year. It then poured a ton of money into developing Windows Phone 7 from scratch instead of refining its Windows Mobile OS. That delayed its release of the OS and may have set Microsoft back badly in the mobile space.

"The new operating system is going to require a lot of investment in terms of resources," Display Search's Shim said.

Still, there's no doubt Microsoft is trying once again to crack the mobile market. Rumors that it's in talks with Nokia in a possible joint effort for the smartphone market are making the rounds.


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