New Microsoft, ARM licensing agreement; Could a Windows Phone tablet be coming?

Summary:Microsoft and ARM announced on July 23 that the two have signed a new licensing agreement for the ARM architecture, extending the relationship between the two companies. The pair aren't sharing any details, but I can't but wonder if this could signal Microsoftand its PC partners delivering Windows and/or Windows Phone OS available on ARM-based slates and tablets.

Microsoft and ARM announced on July 23 that the two have signed a new licensing agreement for the ARM architecure, extending the relationship between the two companies.

The pair aren't sharing any details on what's behind the new deal, but I can't but wonder if this could signal Microsoft and its PC partners delivering Windows and/or Windows Phone OS available on ARM-based slates and tablets.

Microsoft and ARM already had agreements in place dating back to 1997 allowing Windows Embedded and the Windows Phone operating systems (built on top of Windows Embedded Compact) to run on ARM processors. The new agreement goes beyond that, but in ways the companies are not disclosing.

A press release from ARM quotes KD Hallman, a Microsoft General Manager, as saying "with closer access to the ARM technology we will be able to enhance our research and development activities for ARM-based products.”

So what, exactly, is this new R&D Microsoft is exploring around ARM? My guess -- and I note this is purely a guess -- is that it might have something to do with porting the Windows operating system to ARM. While Windows Embedded runs on ARM, so far, the full Windows operating system has not been available on ARM processors. (There were rumors Microsoft was working on a port of Longhorn, a k a Vista, to ARM, that was known internally as "LongARM," but the company never released such an animal in the wild.)

Word is that Microsoft has continued its explorations of porting Windows to ARM. I blogged recently about a research project at Microsoft codenamed "Menlo." Menlo, according to my sources, Menlo is a project dedicated to replacing Windows Embedded Compact with the Windows (NT) kernel, enabling Windows to run on mobile devices. (“Experiment 19″ is a graphics platform researchers are building to complement Menlo, my sources have told me.) Microsoft officials have declined to comment on Menlo, but there are a number of mentions of the project on the Microsoft Research site, as well as other Web sites.

There's another possibility: What if the new agreement with ARM involves Windows Phone OS running on tablets, slates and netbooks running the ARM chip?  (Remember my ZDNet colleague Jason Perlow's idea for a ZuneBook?) Microsoft has been discouraging its PC partners from building slates and tablets from running the Windows Phone OS (Windows Mobile and Windows Phone OS 7). Instead, the Softies have been encouraging their partners to use either Windows 7 or Windows Embedded Compact as their operating systems inside "Windows slates" and tablets.

In spite of Microsoft's discouragement, a few OEMs have been working on Windows Mobile-based tablets. And Microsoft itself has been exploring porting Windows Mobile to MIDs (mobile Internet Devices) for a couple of years. Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Len Kawell -- a colleague of Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie -- has been on that assignment.

I blogged yesterday that Microsoft's decision to remain mum about any kind of real information on its slate/tablet strategy had led to me buying an iPad. If there's a Windows Phone 7 slate out there, Microsoft should hurry up and leave it on a bar stool!

What's your take? Any other guesses about what the new mystery agreement between Microsoft and ARM may signal?

Update: The type of license that Microsoft signed for is an architecture license, as noted above. ARM's Director for Strategic Marketing, Kerry McGuire, told me that there are three other companies who have signed this kind of license with ARM: Qualcomm, Marvell Semiconductor and Infineon Technologies. Microsoft is the first major software vendor to obtain this kind of ARM license, she said.

Does that mean Microsoft is going to be making chips? Not necessarily. "An architecture license gives the holder access to the blueprint of the ARM architecture and processor implementation," McGuire said. The license can be used to understand fully the ARM capabilities and architecure.

(Remember: Microsoft was building a reference architecture, in the form of a chassis, for the discontinued Kin phones. It could be doing something similar around ARM for some future smartphone, tablet/slate and/or PC platform.

I asked Microsoft whether the company has ever made its own chips or microarchitecturs for any product. The answer, via a spokesperson: "Microsoft does not manufacture its own chips nor microarchitecture for its products."

Update No. 2: The Register is speculating that Microsoft is licensing the ARM architecture to use ARM in Xbox.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Processors, Software, Tablets

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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