'Windows 10 on Qualcomm' is Microsoft's attempt to drag the PC into the 21st century

Next year sees Microsoft bring a natively compiled version of Windows 10, complete with an x86 emulation layer, to Qualcomm's ARM processors. Can this reinvigorate the PC industry?

Windows 10 is coming to Qualcomm's ARM processors in 2017. And this means interesting times ahead for Microsoft, the OEMs, and consumers.

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Microsoft to PC makers: Let's make some Windows 10 ARM-based PCs

Microsoft will bring a natively compiled version of Windows 10 to Qualcomm's ARM processors next year, plus an x86 emulation layer, designed to run on a new class of Windows 10 mobile PCs.

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From the information we have so far we can start to get a picture of what Microsoft has in mind. From Microsoft's blog post announcing the move, there are three phrases stand out:

  • "Power-efficient PCs": This is a double-edged phrase. Not only does it mean systems that sip rather than gulp down power, but it also sets out user expectation. We're talking portable systems here, not desktops, and we're talking about the lower-end of the performance spectrum, not top-end stuff. In Intel-speak, we're talking Atom levels of performance, not upper-end Core i7 (more on this later). Or maybe a better comparison is to look at this as a Surface 3 replacement, as opposed to Surface Pro 4.
  • "Cellular networks": This phrase appears a few times in the announcement, and it's significant. Wi-Fi and Ethernet are currently the primary ways that Windows systems connect to the internet, but this is pretty old-school -- and not to mention restrictive -- compared to the freedoms that smartphone and tablet users get by connecting to cellular networks. Microsoft wants to change this.
  • "eSIM technology": Forget about SIMs and SIM slots, Microsoft is focused on eSIM. Not only does this mean greater flexibility for consumers to pick and choose networks that suit their needs, but is also simplifies things for OEMs.

Right here we see Microsoft innovating, and changing what a PC is, but just as with the Surface Studio, doing it in small steps so as not to scare or confuse the market. This is far more innovative than Touch Bars and the "thinner and lighter" mantra that Apple is pushing.

We're looking at a true 21st century PC.

Additionally, according to my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft will "offer Windows 10 on Qualcomm to OEMs across a variety of categories, including 6-, 10-, and 14-inch categories." This again gives us an idea of the types of systems this is being aimed at. Normally that 14-inch screen size is the cut-off between mixed-use and high-end laptops, so this again fits in with the "power-efficient PCs" theme.

Microsoft does have a video of Windows 10 running on a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chip running at 1.59GHz, and things do seem to be running pretty smoothly. And there are some interesting tidbits in the video worth noting.

First, here are the system specs:

'Windows 10 on Qualcomm' is Microsoft's attempt to drag the PC into the 21st century
Microsoft

This shows the system connecting to a domain controller, a key enterprise feature:

'Windows 10 on Qualcomm' is Microsoft's attempt to drag the PC into the 21st century
Microsoft

Here we get a look at system performance under the load of running Microsoft Edge:

'Windows 10 on Qualcomm' is Microsoft's attempt to drag the PC into the 21st century
Microsoft

Here's the system running Photoshop CC:

'Windows 10 on Qualcomm' is Microsoft's attempt to drag the PC into the 21st century
Microsoft

Despite being a mixed-use system, the Qualcomm 820 silicon seems to have enough power to handle basic tasks in Photoshop (be aware that opening a single-layer file consisting of only a PNG and applying a filter isn't all that demanding a Photoshop task).

Three things will play a pivotal part in whether Windows 10 on Qualcomm will be a success:

  1. After the Windows RT debacle, and then numerous stop-starts and refreshes that went nowhere with Windows Mobile, can Microsoft convince OEMs to take this seriously?
  2. Can Microsoft and the OEMs successfully communicate to buyers the strengths and weaknesses of Windows 10 on Qualcomm systems? (I already feel that Microsoft boasting about running Photoshop on the system is the wrong message to push -- these systems need to stand on their own, not just be another type of PC).
  3. Do consumers care enough to look up from their existing smartphones and tablets?

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