Microsoft Debuting ARM-Based Windows for Tablets: Report

Microsoft will debut an ARM-based version of Windows for tablets and mobile devices at CES, according to a new report from Bloomberg.

Microsoft is planning to use January's Consumer Electronics Show to debut a version of Windows that leverages ARM Holdings technology, according to a new report from Bloomberg. ARM's chip designs currently hold a sizable portion of the mobile-device market, especially smartphones.

That Dec. 21 report, which cited two unnamed people "familiar with Microsoft's plans," suggested that the "software would be tailored for battery-powered devices, such as tablet computers and other handhelds." Microsoft and AMD declined to comment to Bloomberg.

Microsoft and ARM's relationship extends back to 1997. On July 23, the two companies announced "a new licensing agreement for the ARM architecture" but declined to offer many details, leading to rampant speculation. Some analysts suspected the agreement would result in deeper collaboration on mobile devices such as tablets.

"My view is that this is extending a long-term agreement between Microsoft and ARM, allowing Microsoft to take advantage of the latest ARM processor designs," John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research, told eWEEK at the time. "It would make sense from a couple of different angles for Microsoft to do this. First, to be able to use ARM processors in its own devices-which could be portable music players or gaming devices. Or could be something else that's new."

If Microsoft plans on leveraging ARM technology in order to install Windows on tablets and mobile devices, it would dovetail neatly with earlier rumors that Microsoft plans to debut a new line of Windows 7 tablets at CES, including devices built by Dell and Samsung. Those rumors came courtesy of a Dec. 13 report in The New York Times, whose unnamed sources suggested that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would show off the tablets during his keynote-in essence repeating his performance at the 2010 conference, when he unveiled tablets from Hewlett-Packard and a pair of smaller manufacturers.

However, tighter Microsoft collaboration with ARM over tablets would run somewhat contrary to earlier comments by Microsoft executives, which made it seem as if the company was betting solely on Intel's upcoming "Oak Trail" Atom chips to power an upcoming generation of Windows tablets.

"Oak Trail is designed to be lower power," Ballmer said during this summer's Financial Analyst Meeting. "Lower power is good in a lot of ways. It leads to longer battery life, no fan, lower kind of noise levels, a lot less weight-a lot of things people like."

Other executives have re-emphasized Ballmer's points.

"I think we're laser-focused on tablets as an emerging category," Bill Koefoed, Microsoft's general manager of investor relations, said Aug. 10 at the Oppenheimer Annual Technology, Media & Telecommunications Conference in Boston. "Intel is going to come out with their Oak Trail chip around the first of the year and, we think, that's going to offer a lot of new capabilities. Whether it's better usage of battery life and the like, it's going to really help move the category forward."

But the Bloomberg report suggested that Microsoft's new Windows software "also will be able to work on Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. processors," hinting that-if accurate-Microsoft could be pursuing a broad, multi-vendor hardware strategy as part of its tablet push.

That might make sense in context of the tablet market, where Microsoft faces substantial competition from not only the bestselling Apple iPad, but a growing family of Android-based devices. Research In Motion and Hewlett-Packard are also planning tablets with proprietary operating systems for 2011. In order to carve off its own chunk of market-share, Microsoft might need to pursue the most multi-front strategy possible.