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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is bringing Windows 10 desktop to Qualcomm's ARM processors, setting the stage for a new class of cellular-connected, Windows 10 mobile PCs.

Credit: ZDNet

And the icing on the cake: Microsoft will add an emulation layer to this version of Windows 10 for ARM that will enable x86/Win32 apps to run. (Yes, this is the Windows 10 "Cobalt" emulation technology I wrote about recently.)

Microsoft officials delivered the big news to the company's PC-maker partners at WinHEC in Shenzhen, China, on December 8. At that conference for Microsoft's OEM partners, Microsoft demonstrated a version of Windows 10 running on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 processor.

Microsoft currently provides Windows 10 Mobile, a variant of Windows 10 for ARM-based phones only. Back in 2012, the company tried providing Windows 8 on ARM (NVIDIA Tegra) in the form of Windows RT.

Windows RT was the operating system that powered the first Microsoft Surface tablet, which was known as Surface RT. Windows RT had some limitations that kept it from taking off. For one, it only ran Universal Windows apps, not any x86/Win32 ones. For another, Windows RT only included a subset of the features that were part of Windows 8; it was missing the ability to join an Active Directory domain, work with Group Policy, boot from VHD, offer remote desktop host support, offer BitLocker protection, and more.

The coming version of Windows 10 for Qualcomm is not Windows RT. It is a version of Microsoft's full Windows 10 desktop that's compiled natively to run on the Qualcomm CPU. It can run Universal Windows Platform apps. But it also will allow Win32 apps to run via emulation. According to Microsoft, existing peripherals and enterprise features that are currently supported in Windows 10 for Intel PCs will work on Windows 10 on Qualcomm devices.

When Windows 10 for Qualcomm be available? Microsoft officials are only saying in 2017. But my tipsters said the Cobalt emulation technology will be a Redstone 3 feature, which means Fall 2017. I'm assuming that means Fall 2017 for Windows 10 on Qualcomm, too.

"The concept to retail shelf timeline is normally two years," said Terry Myerson, the head of Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, when I asked him earlier this week about timing. (It's not clear right now when the "concept" phase of this officially began.)

Another big question: Is this the official end of Wintel? The non-click-bait answer is no.

The general-purpose Windows 10 PCs in market today are all Intel-based. Microsoft is still working with Intel on extended reality/virtual reality, high-end gaming PCs, and new initiatives like "Project Evo," which Microsoft and Intel announced today at WinHEC.

Evo is a broad-reaching project that encompasses "all-new ways for devices to light up with the latest in advanced security, artificial intelligence and Cortana, mixed reality and gaming." One of the areas Evo addresses is "far-field speech communications" -- the kind of technology needed for some kind of device or experience similar to Amazon Echo/Google Home -- which will allow users to ask Cortana questions or make requests from across the room. (Hello, Home Hub?)

Microsoft is walking the Intel-ARM tightrope, by trying to make it clear that Windows 10 on ARM is meant for a specific class of devices, namely mobile PCs of the greater than 6-inch screen variety.

Microsoft will be offering Windows 10 on Qualcomm to OEMs across a variety of categories, including 6-, 10-, and 14-inch categories, Myerson told me.

While Windows 10 Mobile remains Microsoft's version of Windows 10 for anyone interested in building a Windows 10 phone, Myerson did tell me that "we're not drawing a sharp distinction between phone and desktop" when it comes to which version of Windows 10 device maker opts to use.

That said, the aforementioned emulation layer included in Windows 10 for Qualcomm is not currently designed to work on Windows phones, Myerson said.

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