Microsoft Talks Windows on ARM at CES

Microsoft's next Windows version will support System on a Chip on ARM, executives announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS-Microsoft used a Jan. 5 press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show here to announce that the next version of Windows will support System on a Chip (SoC) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments.

In addition, the company used the event to reveal Windows 7 running on a handful of new ultra-light devices-including an Acer laptop with dual touch-screens-and the next version of its Surface touch-screen technology.

ARM chip designs currently dominate much of the burgeoning mobile market, which Microsoft is anxious to penetrate.

Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows and Windows Live Division, suggested soon after taking the stage that tablets, mobile devices and traditional PCs were rapidly converging in terms of their hardware requirements and capabilities. Windows currently dominates the x86 platform used by traditional PCs, but the rise of powerful mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets-powered largely by ARM chip designs-has effectively created a new market for the operating system, provided it can work out the engineering details.

"Under the hood there are a ton of differences that need to be worked through," Sinofsky told the audience. "Windows has proven remarkably flexible at this under-the-hood sort of stuff."

Microsoft executives used part of the conference to demonstrate that ARM could power Windows with little 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."

Sinofsky and company also demonstrated a new line of laptops running Windows 7, including an Acer laptop with a second touch-screen in place of a keyboard, in order to emphasize how Intel and AMD are still working with the company to develop battery-efficient platforms that take advantage of evolving technologies such as touch. Intel and AMD are both continuing to develop SoC architectures offering better battery life and lower heat.

"We're very slate-focused this week," Sinofsky said, "but we want smaller and cooler on all our form factors."

Executives also demonstrated a new version of Surface, the company's table-sized touch-screen tablets. This new version runs Windows 7 and is fronted with Gorilla glass.

However, ARM remained the primary focus of the conference. 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 the 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."

Sinofsky offered no firm release date for the new ARM-based Windows.

While Microsoft's flagship products-including Windows 7 and the Office franchise-continue to buoy the company's revenues, it has been struggling to catch up with rivals such as Apple and Google in the tablet PC and smartphone arenas. The recently released Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft's attempt to reverse its eroding market share in the latter, but heading into CES it had yet to offer a substantial consumer-tablet effort.

Over the previous few months, Microsoft executives have suggested that their tablet play in 2011 would rely on a new generation of Intel microprocessors designed for mobile devices. With the AMD announcement, the possibility exists for future generations of Windows tablets running both Intel and ARM chips.