Microsoft: Windows 8 will support ARM processors

Microsoft dropped a bombshell at CES today, announcing that the next version of the Windows OS will run on ARM processors.  The company stated that Windows for ARM will run on SoC (System on a Chip) architectures and will support hardware accelerated web browsing, media playback, and peripheral support on par with standard x86 Windows.

The move is aimed at extending the Windows experience to new devices.  “Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve,” CEO Steve Ballmer said in his keynote. “It means Windows will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise.”  The company showed off demo units running a future version of Windows (but with the user interface from Windows 7) on ARM chips from Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Texas Instruments.

The ARM-powered machines were running just Internet Explorer 9, Office for ARM, and an Epson printer driver.  The Nvidia Tegra 2 demo box, however, was nonetheless impressive, smoothly playing the Iron Man 2 trailer in 1080p and running the IE9 HTML5 demos without any hiccups.

Read on for more details about Microsoft’s ARM announcement, and see our Smartphone Processor Guide for more information about ARM’s SoC processor architectures.

Currently, Microsoft has two different lines of Windows- “full” Windows for laptops, desktops, and such running on Intel and AMD’s x86 CPUs and Windows CE for devices that run on ARM chips, like GPS navigation units and smartphones (via Windows Phone 7, which runs on top of the WinCE core).  Portable devices like smartphones and, more recently, tablets, use ARM processors due to their lower power consumption, but in recent years, ARM chips have also dramatically improved in performance and are almost competitive with Intel’s low-power Atom line, at a fraction of the power usage and heat output.

Windows on ARM should help Microsoft gain some ground in the tablet market, which it has thus far pretty much left alone for Apple, Google, and others to compete in.  One key issue is that while the basic experience of Windows on ARM should be similar to that of Windows on x86, the two OSes cannot run the same native applications.  .NET / Silverlight apps, which Microsoft is pushing in any case, should be fine, but most large commercial software packages will require separate versions.  Timing is also in question- the tablet market is exploding today, yet Windows 8 likely won’t hit the market until late 2012.  Can Microsoft avoid missing the boat and having to invest massively to try to catch up (as it had to in the smartphone arena)?

Microsoft’s press release:

LAS VEGAS — Jan. 5, 2011 — Microsoft Corp. today announced at 2011 International CES that the next version of Windows will support System on a Chip (SoC) architectures, including ARM-based systems from partners NVIDIA Corp., Qualcomm Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. On the x86 architecture, Intel Corporation and AMD continue their work on low-power SoC designs that fully support Windows, including support for native x86 applications. SoC architectures will fuel significant innovation across the hardware spectrum when coupled with the depth and breadth of the Windows platform.

At today’s announcement, Microsoft demonstrated the next version of Windows running on new SoC platforms from Intel running on x86 architecture and from NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments on ARM architecture. The technology demonstration included Windows client support across a range of scenarios, such as hardware-accelerated graphics and media playback, hardware-accelerated Web browsing with the latest Microsoft Internet Explorer, USB device support, printing and other features customers have come to expect from their computing experience. Microsoft Office running natively on ARM also was shown as a demonstration of the full depth and breadth of Windows platform capabilities on ARM architecture.

Windows will continue its industry-leading support across the widest possible set of devices, delivering the breadth and choice that customers demand. Intel and AMD continue to evolve and improve the x86 platforms, including new low-power systems, and advance new designs such as the recently announced 2nd Generation Intel® Core™ processor family and AMD’s Fusion accelerated processing units (APUs). NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments are joining Microsoft to provide ARM-based designs for the first time.

“With today’s announcement, we’re showing the flexibility and resiliency of Windows through the power of software and a commitment to world-class engineering. We continue to evolve Windows to deliver the functionality customers demand across the widest variety of hardware platforms and form factors,” said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft.

SoC architectures consolidate the major components of a computing device onto a single package of silicon. This consolidation enables smaller, thinner devices while reducing the amount of power required for the device, increasing battery life and making possible always-on and always-connected functionality. With support of SoC in the next version of the Windows client, Microsoft is enabling industry partners to design and deliver the widest range of hardware ever.

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realize their full potential.

Silicon Partner Quotes

AMD

“We are entering a new era of computing where HD content and 3-D user interfaces are commonplace, from high-end gaming and content creation to video playback and Web browsing. Together, AMD and Microsoft enable these vivid and engaging PC experiences on x86-based devices, ranging from high-resolution, multidisplay desktops to ultrathin notebooks, netbooks and tablets, and we look forward to a new wave of innovation made possible by Windows and AMD Fusion APUs. Windows and AMD Fusion APUs bring to life outstanding Internet experiences, smooth video playback of HD and 3-D content, and acceleration of popular productivity applications.”

Manju Hegde
Corporate Vice President, Fusion Experience Program
AMD (NYSE: AMD)

ARM Holdings plc

“We are excited by today’s announcement, which marks a significant milestone for ARM and the ARM Partnership, and we look forward to working with Microsoft on the next generation of Windows. Windows combined with the scalability of the low-power ARM architecture, the market expertise of ARM silicon partners and the extensive SoC talent within the broad ARM ecosystem will enable innovative platforms to realize the future of computing, ultimately creating new market opportunities and delivering compelling products to consumers.”

Warren East
CEO
ARM

Intel Corporation

“Even conservative predictions show billions of devices coming online in the next few years. One need only look at the creation and rapid growth of the netbook category to grasp what an Intel and Microsoft combination can deliver. While still in the future, what is so exciting is how our two companies will be able to match a tailored, low-powered Windows operating system with future generations of our popular Intel® Atom™ processors to deliver unique, PC-like experiences that offer the best battery life, performance and security around.”

Douglas L. Davis
Vice President, General Manager, Netbook and Tablet Group
Intel

NVIDIA Corp.

“Windows on ARM represents a seismic shift for the computing industry. ARM is already the largest and fastest-growing CPU architecture in the world, and today’s major news of Windows will only accelerate its adoption. We look forward to working with Microsoft to create amazing new computing devices with Windows.”

Jen-Hsun Huang
President and Chief Executive Officer
NVIDIA

Qualcomm Inc.

“Today signals a significant step forward for the future of computing. We at Qualcomm are excited about continuing our relationship with Microsoft to extend the reach of Windows to more Snapdragon-powered devices, offering high-performance mobile solutions with always-on connectivity.”

Rob Chandhok
President, Qualcomm Internet Services
President, Qualcomm Innovation Center Inc.

Texas Instruments (TI)

“Texas Instruments (TI) is pleased to collaborate with Microsoft to make Windows on mobile devices a reality. TI has long believed that low power is the fundamental of fundamentals when it comes to mobility, and we look forward to taking our popular OMAP™ platform, with the ideal balance of high performance and low power, into exciting new mobile computing devices.”

Remi El-Ouazzane
Vice President and General Manager, OMAP Platform Business Unit
TI

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