Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) dropped a bit of a bombshell a few days ago. The company announced it was partnering with Qualcomm, Inc. (NASDAQ:QCOM) to bring Windows 10 to devices running chips based on ARM Holdings processors. Yesterday, MSFT showed off Windows PC applications running on a QCOM Snapdragon CPU. Windows on ARM is no Windows RT and it’s about to make 2017 a very interesting year.
Windows RT was an attempt by Microsoft to port Windows functionality to ARM processors. As part of the company’s initial foray into tablets, Windows RT was used to power the cheaper, consumer-focused Surface RT.
The idea was that ARM-based CPUs — the processors used in smartphones and tablets like Apple Inc.’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad– would let let Microsoft release tablets that were thinner and easier on batteries than ones running on Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC) processors.
That logic made sense.
Those ARM processors, made by companies like Qualcomm, were designed for mobile devices. Size and power consumption were at the top of their priority list.
Unfortunately for MSFT, they lacked the power needed to run Windows in emulation. So the company hobbled together Windows RT, a Windows lookalike that ran apps, but not desktop Windows software. Needless to say, Windows RT was a confusing mess that almost killed Microsoft’s tablet ambitions.
But Windows on ARM is not Windows RT.
Windows on ARM: Running Desktop Windows 10 in Emulation
What Microsoft announced during an interview with The Verge is Windows 10 running in emulation on ARM chips designed by Qualcomm. That means the full desktop Windows 10 experience, including running standard desktop Windows software, on a mobile chip.
This isn’t theoretical, it’s actually working and it goes far beyond the Continuum feature MSFT introduced for Windows 10 Mobile. That essentially made Windows 10 mobile apps appear in a desktop configuration when a Windows phone was connected to an external monitor.
Yesterday, MSFT showed off the Windows 10 desktop versions of Microsoft Office and Adobe Systems Incorporated‘s (NASDAQ:ADBE) Photoshop running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor. That’s the same mobile CPU that powers popular smartphones like the Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) Galaxy S7. The company says the Windows 10 update incorporating ARM support will arrive sometime next year.
How MSFT Will Change the Game in 2017
Microsoft’s ability to offer the full Windows 10 PC experience — including support for Windows PC software — is going to have big ripple effects in 2017.
For example, that new Surface Phone the company is believed to be working on? It could literally become both your smartphone and your PC. Plug the Surface Phone into a monitor and connect a Bluetooth keyboard and it functions as a desktop PC, able to run the same software as all the other PCs in the office.
Look for a new generation of ultra-thin, long battery life Windows laptops that could make Apple’s MacBook look chunky in comparison.
In case you were wondering what happens to Intel at this point, it’s not going to be dropped. Those ARM chips are now fast enough to pull off the needed emulation, but they are still mobile chips. They lack the power of Intel’s traditional PC processors. They also can’t handle 64-bit apps.
So while Windows on ARM has the potential to revolutionize ultraportable Windows laptops and to kickstart Windows 10 as a viable smartphone platform, Intel will still be important. Professional class laptops and desktop PCs that need power and the ability to run 64-bit Windows software will continue to rely on Intel processors. The company has to be worried by this development, though.
So far, we’ve watched Microsoft running demos, so it’s tough to tell if there’s any background optimization going on. However, if MSFT and Qualcomm truly have this figured out, Windows on ARM promises to be a game changer. It has the potential to shake up the smartphone, tablet and PC industries in 2017.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.