Windows on ARM Chips Poses New Potential Challenge to Chromebooks

Microsoft's work with Qualcomm to enable Windows 10 to run on ARM Chips may represent a new competitive challenge to Google's increasingly popular Chromebook platform.

Windows on ARM 2

Microsoft's move to enable x86 emulation on ARM chips may have an impact on the growing market for Chromebook devices.

During the WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Community) 2016 conference last month, Microsoft and Qualcomm announced a partnership to bring Windows 10 to the latter's ARM-based Snapdragon chips. The companies made it official after eagle-eyed users spied references to x86-on-ARM64 emulation technology in an upcoming update for Microsoft's flagship operating system.

Microsoft's Terry Myerson, executive vice president of the Windows and Devices Group, remarked in the Dec. 7 WinHEC announcement that for the first time, Microsoft's "customers will be able to experience the Windows they know with all the apps, peripherals and enterprise capabilities they require, on a truly mobile, power efficient, always-connected cellular PC."

Earlier attempts to cram Windows, which typically runs on x86 processors from Intel and AMD, into an ARM-based device didn't fare too well for the Redmond, Wash. software giant.

Microsoft's Surface RT tablet debuted in 2012 with Windows RT, a version of the company's operating system that ran on the device's ARM-based chip.

However, the Surfacet RT was Considered underpowered and cut off from the massive x86 software library amassed by the Windows developer and user communities. The market's underwhelming reaction to the Surface RT dashed the company's hopes for a strong competitor to Apple's class-leading iPad. By the summer of 2013, the company had written off its Surface RT business to the tune of $900 million.

This time, Microsoft is taking a different approach. Instead of bifurcating the Windows software ecosystem, the company is working on emulation technology that will allow x86 Win32 code to run unchanged on low-power Qualcomm Snapdragon chips.

J. Gold Associates, a technology research group, suspects that Microsoft may be setting its sights on the education market and other sectors that are snapping up Chromebooks.

"Microsoft hasn't been clear on which devices it wishes to enable, but our speculation is that it is squarely targeting the emerging crop of Chromebook-like devices that are penetrating markets like education and some consumer areas," stated a report sent to eWEEK from Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. "They are having success based on their relatively lower price and complexity compared to full notebooks."

Affordability aside, Google recently gave users another compelling reason to choose the Chromebook platform.

In 2016, the first batch of Chromebooks with Access to the Google Play store hit the market. Essentially, some Chromebooks now offer their owners access to the massive Android app marketplace. Currently, there are over 2.6 million Android apps on Google Play, according to the latest tally from the market watchers at AppBrain.

"The same apps that run on phones and tablets can now run on Chromebooks without compromising their speed, simplicity or security," wrote Elijah Taylor and Dylan Reid, Chrome OS software engineers at Google, in a May 19 blog post. "This is good for users and great for developers — in addition to phones and tablets, they will be able to easily bring their apps to laptops."

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...