Microsoft and Qualcomm bring x86 apps to ARM-based devices

Perhaps this will succeed where Windows RT failed.

Microsoft dipped its toe in the ARM waters with Windows RT but it ultimately proved a failure, primarily because of the lack of applications. That doesn't mean the company is going to give up on the dominant mobile market processor, however.

At the WinHEC show in China last week, Microsoft announced it has finally created a native version of Windows 10 running on Qualcomm Snapdragon processors with full x86 compatibility. This isn't Windows RT, it's full Windows 10, but you’ll be able to run Win32 apps and Windows Universal Apps.

The initial version of ARM Windows 10 only supports 32-bit apps, but that's not a big deal since most mobile devices have 4GB of memory or less anyway. And it should be noted this is Windows 10 on Snapdragon, not Windows 10 on ARM. Sure, Qualcomm's processors are fairly ubiquitous but they aren't everywhere. You won't be running Windows 10 on an iPad any time soon.

This enables Microsoft to get down into the lower-cost mobile market. The Surface tablets and notebooks are nice but they aren't cheap. That's partly due to being essentially x86 PCs. An ARM-based tablet has an overall lower cost of materials and lower price, so it gets Windows into places Microsoft currently isn't playing with the Surface line.

"For the first time ever, our customers will be able to experience the Windows they know with all the apps, peripherals, and enterprise capabilities they require, on a truly mobile, power efficient, always-connected cellular PC," said Windows chief Terry Myerson in a blog post announcing the breakthrough, along with other WinHEC news.

"With Windows 10 on cellular PCs, we will help everyone make the most of the air around them. We look forward to seeing these new devices with integrated cellular connectivity and the great experiences people love like touch, pen and Windows Hello, in market as early as next year," he added.

PCWorld (a sister publication of Computerworld) reports that the emulation will be built around a new, unreleased chip the Snapdragon 835 that's in production now and is due to ship in the first half of 2017, according to Qualcomm. The first Windows-on-ARM devices are expected by the second half of next year.

This will be a major challenge for Qualcomm. Emulation is always tricky business. Remember Transmeta? The difference here is Intel has basically given up on the mobile market. It bailed out of the tablet and smartphone business last year, basically handing it to ARM. So at least they don't have to deal with Intel on the hardware side.

But Qualcomm still faces a considerable challenge of ARM-to-x86 emulation. We don't know anything on the performance specs of the 835, only that it's a 10nm part.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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