Computing on ARM

Microsoft worked really hard on the code for putting full Windows on tablets and phones. But, is it too little too late?

If they could go back in time, CEO Satya Nadella would give his younger self the code for Microsoft’s new Win32 on ARM emulator.

It’s the missing piece of the puzzle that could finally let Microsoft build Windows phones, tiny laptops and razor-thin tablets that people might actually want to buy. It could have saved Microsoft thousands of jobs and billions of dollars if the company had had it just a few years ago.

See, Win32 alludes to the usual Windows desktop apps you know and love, like Office and VLC, Steam and Photoshop. The thing is, the versions of Windows that run on thin tablets and phones never could use those all-important Windows Phone app development. That is because the energy-efficient ARM processors that powered those devices weren’t compatible.

But Microsoft says it’s finally cracked the code. The company brought up Windows 10 operating system, which includes Win32 apps, to ARM-based Qualcomm processors. That means real Windows desktop apps could run on phones and beyond.

Is it a little too late? Here are five reasons why this achievement could change the computing landscape and three ways it could fail.

Why Windows on ARM could succeed

1. Windows tablets could beat the iPad

The Surface Book and Surface Pro might be awesome Windows computers, but no one’s mistaking them for an Apple iPad.  Windows tablets are comparatively heavy, thick and far more expensive. In the meantime, Apple’s iPad still can’t substitute a computer for many people. (That’s probably the reason why the Mac still exists.)

Microsoft’s Windows 10 OS has the chops to be for both a tablet and a PC. But only a few companies have managed to create a competitive tablet using Intel processors. (The exception to the rule is Samsung TabPro S.)

Qualcomm’s chips, with built-in wireless connectivity, could give the battery life and always-on internet connection that Intel hasn’t up to now.

2. Windows phones could turn up the heat

HP’s Elite x3 turns into a Windows desktop when you dock it. If you pay for HP to host them on cloud servers, it can even run Win32 desktop apps.

Right now, Apple and Android developers are your only viable options for a smartphone. But that could easily change, and it would be good to have a real alternative. What if your phone could turn into a full Windows laptop or desktop when you plug it into a dock?

This idea has been in the air for quite some time, but Windows never tried it with their desktop that actually ran desktop apps on the phone itself. That’s now theoretically possible with Windows on the ARM, and it’s something both phone makers and PC makers can now chase.

3. AR and VR

Windows is where the hottest augmented and virtual reality experiences live. But the problem is that they’re not particularly portable. They’re all either tethered to Windows laptops or desktops or have poor battery life.

To cut the cord and venture out into the real world with standalone, smaller headsets, we need always-connected-to-the-internet, lightweight processors that last more than a few hours without charging. That’s what Qualcomm’s ARM chips do best. They bake the cellular radios right into the processor instead of requiring additional components.

4. Laptops will get mobile superpowers, too

How often do you crave your laptop had a mobile connection? Awful coffee shop Wi-Fi could be a thing of the past with a Windows device powered by the ARM. Nowadays, you don’t see a lot of mobile-powered laptops because it’s a huge design limitation. Manufacturers have to make room for a SIM card tray and a removable cellular module and install software to control the whole thing.

But again, Qualcomm’s chips have mobile built right in, and Microsoft says Windows will natively support tiny embedded reprogrammable SIM cards so there will be no need to swap out SIMs.

Of course, not every producer will bother adding cellular antennas, and you’ll still need a data plan. But cellular models will be way more affordable than the $150-$300 premium you might pay today. Plus, prices might come down if Qualcomm and Intel are competing to be on your next PC. With fast future 5G networks, there may come a time when mobile connectivity is the standard for computers.

5. ARM processors might be quick enough to overcome Intel chips now

Sure, your phone isn’t anywhere near as fast as a beefy gaming PC packed with Nvidia, AMD and Intel processors. But you might be astonished how far mobile processors have come. Putting benchmarks aside, Microsoft showed off a Windows 10 machine running Adobe Photoshop on a quad-core Snapdragon 820, and you can bet that tomorrow’s eight-core Snapdragon 835 will be a good bit quicker than that.

Why Microsoft could fail yet again

  1. Windows desktop apps could still be slow

Here’s the thing about Microsoft’s brand new app support: It uses an emulator, and they tend to slow everything down. This means that even if the Snapdragon 835 is just as quick as an Intel chip, everything will probably run a bit slower. We can’t say how much slower, and Microsoft has built some impressive emulators in the past. And a Microsoft spokesperson tells CNET that Windows on the ARM is fairly quick: “People will experience apps at a similar speed to what they experience on other, similarly priced PCs.”

Still, there is always an operating cost associated with emulation, and emulators can sometimes also have difficulty supporting external devices like scanners and printers.

  1. Clients might not trust Microsoft again

Microsoft is the well-known boy who called wolf. Year after year, the company promised you’d finally be able to get full Windows on a phone or thin tablet. Even if that’s about to become true, would you purchase an iPad-like device or Windows Phone knowing how previous customers were left disappointed?

Well, we’ll see that in future.