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Ballmer says Windows on ARM isn't about ARM

'You're still our BFF, Intel'

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CES 2011 Windows 8 will be the first incarnation of Microsoft's flagship OS to run on ARM processors. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer prefers to paint this news a bit differently.

He downplays the ARM bit.

"This announcement is really all about enabling a new class of hardware and new silicon partners for Windows, to bring the widest possible range of form factors to the market," Ballmer said during a Wednesday evening keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ballmer was careful to remind his audience that the x86 architecture is Microsoft's number one platform – at least today. When enumerating the platforms that Windows 8 will run on and when presenting demos of an early build of the next Windows, Ballmer and his demo-meister, Microsoft VP Mike Angiulo, gave Intel first billing.

Ballmer made an obvious effort to deemphasize the ARM connection, instead focusing his audience's attention on the fact that "the next version of Windows will support system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures."

His message is that the ARM connection is intended as an expansion of Windows' range, not as a sea change. "Windows support for SoCs is an important step for Microsoft, and for the industry," he said.

The reason for adding SoC support, Ballmer said, was consumer demand. "Increasingly, customers expect the full range of capability from any device – the power and breadth of software that is available for today's laptop, the long battery life and always-on capabilties of a mobile phone, great browsing, productivity and media experiences – in addition to the basics: printing, and support for all of the hardware devices and peripherals."

Including those "basics" was a not-so-subtle dig at Apple's game-changing but limited iPad. When Angiulo demoed a laptop powered by a Texas Instrument's OMAP processor running a version of Word compiled into native ARM code, he printed out a page on what he described as an "off-the-shelf" Epson USB printer with a recompiled ARM driver. Printed on the page in large letters was the text: "I'm a PC. Of course I can print!"

During that demo, Angiulo also noted: "The print driver is just one of the subsystems we have up and running – we can connect to cameras and storage devices and other cool things like that."

In addition to demoing Windows 8 running "a version of Quicken which I just got from the store" on an Intel SoC-based system, Angiulo also showed the Windows desktop running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon, and then he fired up PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, and an HD video clip on Nvidia's Tegra SoC.

"What you're seeing here today is Windows – real Windows – running Office, devices, high-performance browsing, high-performance video, all running on [the] next-generation of SoCs," Angiulo noted in summary.

Ballmer also explained his reasoning as to why the ARM announcement was made on Wednesday, when Windows 8 isn't expected until 2012. "We made the announcement now in order to allow all of our partners to work together, and build upon this innovation," he said.

"Windows has the breadth and depth – and the flexibility – to define and deliver this next generation of devices to customers through the innovation of our partners," he added.

In a world in which Apple's iOS and Google's Android are tightening their hold on mobile computing – and no, we don't mean laptops – Ballmer wanted to let the world know that Windows will not slip quietly into irrelevance in that burgeoning consumer market. "Whatever device you use, now or in the future, Windows will be there," he said.

But you'll need to wait until at least 2012 to see if his prediction is correct. ®

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