At CES in Las Vegas today, Microsoft Windows boss Steven Sinofsky announced support for System on a Chip (SoC) architectures from Intel, AMD, and ARM. The press release says:
"The technology demonstration included Windows client support across a range of scenarios, such as hardware-accelerated graphics and media playback, hardware-accelerated Web browsing with the latest Microsoft Internet Explorer, USB device support, printing and other features customers have come to expect from their computing experience. Microsoft Office running natively on ARM also was shown as a demonstration of the full depth and breadth of Windows platform capabilities on ARM architecture.
The announcement had been widely trailed beforehand. However, as I said here earlier (Windows for ARM? Maybe, but not in 2011), Microsoft did not say when Windows 8 would be released for ARM chips, and it has yet to show any of the interface developments that have been rumoured for Windows 8. These include Windows Phone 7-style active tiles and other touch-based features that will make Windows more attractive on tablets.
Intel and AMD will still have a clear run at the mainstream computer business, but Intel's Atom will have to slug it out with Qualcomm and Texas Instruments ARM-based systems for the netbook and low-end markets.
In a supporting statement, ARM chief executive Warren East said:
"We are excited by today's announcement, which marks a significant milestone for ARM and the ARM Partnership, and we look forward to working with Microsoft on the next generation of Windows. Windows combined with the scalability of the low-power ARM architecture, the market expertise of ARM silicon partners and the extensive SoC talent within the broad ARM ecosystem will enable innovative platforms to realize the future of computing, ultimately creating new market opportunities and delivering compelling products to consumers."
The move to ARM will help Microsoft to compete against Google Android and other versions of Linux for the low end of the market. Whether it will be able to compete successfully is, of course, another matter. However, given the choice, netbook buyers moved overwhelmingly to Windows XP and away from Linux in versions installed by Acer, Asus and MSI.
There will also be an increasing risk of substitution as ARM chips become steadily more powerful and able to handle more computing tasks. However, Microsoft has presumably calculated that there will be enough incremental business in the extra sales to justify the move. I'd assume Microsoft also has longer-term plans to exploit its Azure cloud-based system and Windows Live Essentials software, where it looks as though it will be able to deliver better products than Google.
Update: Sinofsky provides more details in a Q&A about the announcement.