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Microsoft embraces ARM with Windows 8

Breaks Wintel fidelity

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CES 2011 Microsoft's next version of Windows will run on ARM systems using system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures from NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.

Microsoft announced its platform diversification for Windows 8 during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada on Wednesday. Windows 8 is expected sometime in 2012.

This is the first time a version of Microsoft's sacred Windows client will run natively on ARM. In the past Windows Embedded CE ran on ARM, while Microsoft's built an $18bn annual business putting the full Windows client on PCs running x86 from Intel and AMD.

Also planned is a version of Microsoft's ubiquitous Office productivity suite that will run natively on ARM. Office is Microsoft's second major money spinner, generating up to $18bn annually.

Conscious of the fact that it's breaking 32-years of fidelity with the Intel architecture, Microsoft padded Wednesday's news, saying Windows is not completely abandoning Chipzilla clients.

Intel, along with AMD, will continue to evolve and improve the x86 platform with low-power systems new designs, such as Intel's second generation Core processor family and AMD's Fusion accelerated processing units (APUs), Microsoft said Wednesday.

But the move to ARM primes the planned Windows 8 client to appear on a range of small, thin, and low-powered mobile devices with increased battery life.

ARM's been a long time coming for Microsoft, though it has dodged the issue when grilled in public. The jump to embrace ARM SoCs should mean a fresh lease of life and licensing revenue for the Windows franchise and opportunity for OEM partners.

Microsoft's been taking flack for years now over the potential death of the Windows PC, an Intel- and AMD-dominated institution, against the backdrop of explosive growth in mobile and devices. Microsoft has also been grilled for failing to respond to the popularity of Apple's iPad tablet.

Last year, chief executive Steve Ballmer more or less apologized to investors for slipping up on tablets, and promised "it is job-one urgency" to deliver Windows tablets against Apple.

Windows 8 on ARM should finally mean an exciting new range of tablet computers from Microsoft partners that actually challenge Apple.

The first generation of Windows 7 tablets are generally clunky. And Windows 7 is built for keyboard and mouse use – not multi-touch input, which is limited.

Multi-touch input and the ability to run on a slate are among Microsoft's goals for Windows 8.

The downside for Microsoft and Windows partners and fans? The expected 2012 delivery of Windows 8. The date means OEM partners must continue to work within the limitations of Windows 7 for at least a year and use Intel's Oak Trail Atom processor if they wish to challenge Apple's iPad.

ARM means greater ubiquity of devices, but that's a year off.

Microsoft said support for SoC in the next version of its planned Windows 8 client would enable industry partners to design and deliver the widest range of hardware ever. Windows and Windows Live Division group vice president Steven Sinofsky announced the news at a press conference at CES, where he was surrounded by machines using SoC. During the event, Microsoft demonstrated Windows 8 on ARM and x86 netbooks running chipsets from old friends AMD and Intel.

Microsoft promised standard Windows staple features on SoC, such as hardware accelerated media playback, hardware accelerated Web browsing with the latest version of its Internet Explorer browser, support for USB devices, and the ability to print.

CEO Ballmer is expected to provide more details on his company's ARM conversion during the opening CES keynote later on Wednesday. ®

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