ARM support 'necessary' for Microsoft

Preparing Windows operating system to run on ARM's chip architecture "necessary" to help Microsoft, which hasn't been major mobile player, compete better with Google and Apple, market analysts note.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor on

Microsoft's move to develop its Windows 8 operating system (OS) to support both x86 and ARM chip architecture is a good business move and necessary to help Redmond grab a share of the mobile market currently dominated by Google and Apple.

Matt Healey, program director for software and services at IDC Asia-Pacific, noted that whle Microsoft's move to include an iteration of Windows 8 for ARM-based processors will diversify the company's offerings beyond its traditional base of x86 systems, it is a "necessary" step to take.

"Microsoft has not been a significant player in the booming mobile world and this announcement was required if it is ever to become a significant market participant," Healey said in an e-mail.

Vishal Tripathi, principal research analyst at Gartner, shared similar sentiments. He said Redmond's announcement is "good from a business perspective" as ARM-based processors have a giant share in handheld devices and Microsoft will want to get in on the action.

With ARM-based smartphones and tablets already in the market, and small form-factor netbooks and all-in-one desktops not far off from commercial availability, he noted that Microsoft is seeing the platform's potential.

If its development efforts did not include the ARM architecture, Microsoft's Windows OS would risk losing market share to competitors including Google's Android and Apple's iOS, Tripathi added. "Microsoft realizes the momentum behind ARM is continuing to grow, and that eventually they will need to support ARM hardware in areas that they currently do not," he said.

Redmond announced its Windows 8 roadmap in January when it demonstrated how the OS would work on both x86 and ARM architectures.

It also announced partnerships with ARM chipmakers Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments (TI).

Developer buy-in vital
However, Tripathi reckoned that since the ARM architecture is different from x86 and is not as powerful, existing Windows applications will have to be "rewritten significantly" to run on it.

Healey added that getting developers to come onboard to code for a different platform will be one of the biggest hurdles Redmond would have to overcome. He noted that since there are already several platforms available in the mobile and embedded devices markets, it might prove "difficult" for Microsoft to develop a similar ecosystem in a short time.

His observations were earlier highlighted by Dan Olds, principal analyst of Gabriel Consulting Group, who said Microsoft's success in adopting ARM-based chips depends on the support of independent software vendors (ISVs). "It's not just Microsoft moving to ARM but Microsoft also must get all the other ISVs [to follow suit] in order to have the ecosystem its wants," Olds told technology news site Computerworld in January. "It has to have apps from everyone else."

He noted that Microsoft had already tried, and failed, to support another chip platform. In the 1990s, Redmond offered a version of Windows NT for Digital Equipment Corp's (DEC) Alpha chip, which was developed according to the 64-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture. Windows NT never gained popularity partly because there was a lack of applications that were developed for the platform, Olds said.

When contacted, Microsoft declined to comment.

However, one software vendor ZDNet Asia spoke to said it currently has no plans to develop for ARM architecture. A SAP spokesperson said in her e-mail that the company's applications and database run on 64-bit chip architectures. This will continue to be its platform of choice because ARM chips are only 32-bit, she added.

ARM revealed in February that it was considering 64-bit extensions for its CPU designs, but noted that its absence today would not harm its presence in the server market.

In another Computerworld article, ARM CEO Warren East was quoted to say: "There are certainly server applications today for which...a lack of 64-bit is not a barrier. A 32-bit processor is perfectly adequate to address multicore configurations and blades with multiple multicore chips."

He added that it was "logical" to suppose the U.K.-based chip design licensing company would extend its architecture to 64-bit "at some stage in the future".

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