Windows on ARM, Ballmer Speech Marked Microsoft's CES Week

Microsoft's big week at CES included the announcement that the next version of Windows will run on ARM chips, and upcoming touch-screen laptops.

Microsoft always has a substantial presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and 2011 was no different.

The company's biggest CES announcement came on Jan. 5, when it announced that the next version of Windows will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. Although Windows currently dominates the x86 platform used by traditional PCs, the rise of powerful mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets-largely powered by ARM chip designs-has created a wider potential market for the operating system.

"Under the hood there's a ton of differences that need to be worked through," Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division, told the media and analysts assembled for a Jan. 5 press conference. "Windows has proven remarkably flexible at this under-the-hood sort of stuff. We work on storage from flash all the way up to terabytes of storage" and "Windows kernel on alternate architectures."

During that conference, Sinofsky and other executives demonstrated how Windows could run on native ARM architecture with little evident slowdown. "New version of Internet Explorer running ARM, hardware accelerated," Michael Angiulo, a corporate vice president for Microsoft, said as he demonstrated applications on a laptop with an Nvidia Tegra chip. "'Iron Man' trailer in high definition, running natively on an ARM chip."

However, Microsoft will need to work through some engineering issues associated with the new architecture. When questioned about whether current Windows applications would run on the new ARM-enabled version of the operating system, Sinofsky explained that "x86 programs don't run on ARM architecture, and it's not likely that there'll be virtualization." Without getting into further detail, he added: "We'll have a lot more to say about developers and opportunities down the road. Whenever Windows works on new hardware, our job is to allow the flexibility and choice of that new hardware to shine through."

Microsoft is offering no firm release date for the new ARM-based Windows.

Later on Jan. 5, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took to the keynote stage, highlighting the company's forays into the consumer realm. Telling the audience that Microsoft's product line is the result of "big technology bets that we've made," Ballmer suggested that the company's hands-free Kinect controller and Xbox 360 are expanding from pure gaming platform to household entertainment hub.

"As we speak today, millions of people are enjoying their TV, their music and their movies on demand through Xbox Live," he said. In coming months, Microsoft will roll out Avatar Kinect, which will allow users to interact with others in virtual environments via gesture.

Ballmer also detailed the recent progress of Windows Phone 7, the company's revamped smartphone platform. "There are already more than 5,500 apps available to customers," he said. "More than half our customers download a new application today."

Microsoft will continue to invest "aggressively" in the platform, he added, before confirming long-standing rumors that a series of software updates will be pushed automatically to users over the next few months. Those updates will include "copy-and-paste and significant performance improvements when loading and switching between applications."

In addition, Windows Phone 7 smartphones will appear on Verizon and Sprint in the first half of 2011. The platform originally launched on GSM-based networks such as AT&T. Microsoft claims that manufacturers have sold some 1.5 million Windows Phone 7 units to retailers, but it remains unclear how many of those devices have found their way into consumers' hands.

Heading into the keynote, a number of analysts and pundits expected Ballmer to make some sort of announcement about Windows-powered tablets. He declined to do so. However, Microsoft's presence on the CES show floor was marked by a handful of tablets running Windows 7. Most seemed intended for the Asian market, and featured large 10- and 12-inch screens-in contrast to the 7-inch Android tablets currently flooding U.S. store shelves.

In place of an "iPad killer" or similar device, Microsoft and its manufacturing partners spent CES pushing a number of upcoming laptops with ultra-slim form factors and, in many cases, tablet-style touch functionality. These include a Samsung laptop whose keyboard slides underneath to transform it into a tablet, and a notebook from Acer with a second touch screen in place of a keyboard. Microsoft also used the show to demonstrate Surface 2, the next generation of the company's table-size touch-screen tablets. The new version runs Windows 7 and is fronted with Gorilla glass.