Microsoft is the latest slow-moving behemoth to realize that the gravitational center of personal computing is moving from desktops to pockets. Intel sensed the shift about four years ago and developed the lower-power Atom processor. Now, Microsoft is porting the next generation of Windows to run on low-power processors based on the ARM architecture.
Of course, neither Intel nor Microsoft is a total newbie to mobile computing. Intel even acquired some ARM-compatible processors in the 1990s before foolishly selling them and starting over with Atom. For even longer, Microsoft has sold a stripped-down version of its operating system for ARM (Windows CE) and more recently has struggled to establish another ARM-compatible Mini-Me mutant (Windows Phone) in handsets. But for years, Intel ignored products smaller than notebooks while Microsoft reserved its full-fledged Windows for PCs.
Meanwhile, Apple has been growing rich on iPods, iPhones, and iPads that run a small operating system known as iOS on ARM-compatible processors. Mac OS X and Intel processors aren’t found in Apple products smaller than the Macintosh Air because the x86 hasn’t been able to match ARM’s stingy power consumption.
Microsoft has a chance to restore its glory. By the time Windows 8 is ready (probably 2013), smartphones and tablets will be even more popular alternatives to traditional PCs and stronger ARM-compatible processors will appear. In two years, Apple’s iOS might actually look weak against a full-strength ARM version of Windows.
Indeed, ARM processors could creep upward into PCs and servers even while x86 processors are creeping downward into smartphones and tablets. Software written in Microsoft’s .NET languages or Java is easily portable to ARM. For other software, Microsoft could offer x86 emulation as a bridge. Apple successfully used software emulation to ease transitions from the 68000 to PowerPC in the 1990s, and from PowerPC to the x86 in the 2000s.
Future PCs might be docking stations for smartphones and tablets—docks that add processors, storage, and other resources. Today’s distinctly different classes of PCs may disappear. Both Intel and Microsoft now understand they must adapt to this gravitational shift or face extinction.