CES: Windows to run on ARM chips, says Microsoft

The software maker has announced at CES 2011 that the next Windows will support SoC architectures and has demonstrated its OS running on both ARM and x86 processors
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Microsoft has demonstrated a future version of Windows running on both ARM and x86 processors, and has announced partnerships with ARM processor vendors Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia.

The software maker's president, Steven Sinofsky, presented the demo at a CES 2011 press conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Sinofsky said that neither user interface nor development approaches were being shown.

Surface image

At CES 2011, Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky showed off a new release of Surface, its multi-touch product. Photo credit: Simon Bisson

"We're looking at the hardcore engineering work we've been doing to work on a new class of hardware, where customers are demanding a tighter integration between hardware and software," he said.

Mobile operating system hardware requirements have been doubling every couple of years and are now close to those required for mainstream Windows, with the next generation of slates needing multicore processors, he added.

"It's a convergence of hardware capabilities, with many of the things that define the differences between devices and PCs under the hood," Sinofsky said. "There are differences between the x86 and ARM architectures, but it's all just engineering — and Windows has been good at [engineering] over the years."

The trend to system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures with multiple discrete components in a single package is an important one, according to Sinofsky. "[There's] a lot of shrinking going on, a natural evolution of hardware that's applicable to a wide range of form factors, not just to slates," he said.

On the x86 side, Microsoft said it expects Intel and AMD to continue to produce low-power SoC designs to underpin Windows.

Customer influence
Sinofsky explained how customers had influenced Microsoft's operating-system strategy. "[They're] wanting to do more things, and they have the right to demand everything," he said. "Things that you want regardless of operating systems capability. And we think Windows is a great way of doing things."

Sinofsky showed a Windows desktop on a Qualcomm Snapdragon development system running a natively compiled Windows kernel, version number 6.2.7867.

In a second demonstration, a Texas Instruments OMAP system ran an ARM version of Word, with printer drivers for an Epson printer using the standard Windows printer infrastructure. Sinofsky said that as Microsoft was using a new set of driver classes, this involved only a small amount of work from Epson.

Finally he demonstrated a Nvidia Tegra 2 system, running ARM-native versions of PowerPoint and Internet Explorer 9, and making use of the Tegra platform's built-in GPU. "You'll see this platform used for a lot of mobile devices, running Windows applications and DirectX," Sinofsky said.

"There are a lot of interesting things that can happen from the user-experience point of view, and things aren't particularly converged," he added. "We're very, very early, and we don't want to be in the position of telling people not to do things."

Sinofsky described Windows on ARM as "a pretty big investment that we're making that will offer a whole range of choice for our partners". Microsoft is announcing ARM support in advance of any other features of the next Windows, he said, as it wants to broaden partner relationships with OEMs.

Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve, and Windows will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise.
– Steve Ballmer, Microsoft

In a CES 2011 keynote speech later on Wednesday, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer reiterated Sinofsky's point about timing. "[We] made the announcement now to allow all our partners to build on Windows. Windows support for system-on-a-chip is an important step for Microsoft and Windows," Ballmer said.

Microsoft's chief also underlined the company's wish to push its operating system into a range of forms. "Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve, and Windows will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise," Ballmer said. "We're entering a new generation where you'll be able to use Windows from the small screen to the biggest screens."

Surface 2.0
At the press conference, Sinofsky also showed off a new release of Surface, developed in conjunction with Samsung. Surface 2.0 is only four inches thick and was demonstrated with "the biggest piece of Gorilla Glass that has ever been bonded to an LCD", Sinofsky said.

Using PixelSense, where every pixel in the LCD panel is also an infrared camera, Surface 2.0 has better touch performance than a capacitive screen, he said, and has object recognition and optical character recognition capabilities.

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