It’s the end of Wintel. At least, that’s what you’re likely to read this morning after Microsoft dropped the bomb shell that the next version of Windows will run not just on x86, but also on select ARM chips.
Microsoft CEO made the revelation Wednesday night at the pre-CES keynote and immediately set the industry abuzz over the ramifications of Windows running on ARM. The company then promptly demonstrated an early pre-alpha version of Windows running on ARM hardware from Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and an Nvidia.
Among the demos: The next-gen Windows on ARM running an ARM-version of Microsoft Word and printing to an Epson printer as well as the Nvidia Tegra 2 part running HD video and running a browser.
Ballmer said Microsoft isn’t turning its back on x86, but it wants to have the ability to provide Windows on everything from big screens to small screen. “Whatever device you use, now or in the future, Windows will be there,” Ballmer said.
The version demonstrated was “real Windows” running on ARM and not something emulated officials said. Still, hard details were missing such as when the OS would be available or just what features of Windows would be available on ARM. Would it be a super stripped down? What API’s would be supported? Will vendors really recompile or rewire x86 applications for ARM? None of that is known yet.
ARM wasn’t the only thing that got love from Ballmer and Microsoft on Wednesday. The company rolled out several new PC using x86 chips inside including Acer’s Iconia, an HP AMD Fusion-based notebook, as well as a Sandy Bridge rig and a mini notebook using an Intel Oak Trail CPU. Officials also rolled out a new version of its touch-enabled Surface PC that was only four inches thick.
So despite the hype over ARM, Microsoft clearly knows what butters its bread. Those who think Microsoft will ditch x86 any time soon are likely wrong. The company is hoping to blunt the growth of devices using light OSes such as IOS and Android.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, said he expects Windows ARM machines to be fairly limited.
“ I think it will mostly be mobile but I do expect some desktop penetration in very thin all-in-ones, embedded PCs, and PC focused on markets heavily concerned with energy use (home energy management, security, entertainment). I think we’ll be surprised where this goes and in-car, hospitality, and healthcare markets could like this a lot,” Enderle said. “On the other hand x86 has a massive lead in software/hardware compatibility that will need to be closed and the web can’t do all of that. In short his will be an interesting 2 to 3 years.”
But did Enderle think this was the end of Wintel? “Let’s just say they are exploring an open marriage.”
Over at AMD, the news was met with a bit of meh and cited the lackluster performance of ARM, software compatibility and API support as big barriers for Windows ARM machines. The company was careful not to step on Microsoft’s toes, but it had no problems tweaking the nipples of ARM.
“AMD has had a strong, long-term relationship with Microsoft, and we continue to collaborate across a number of areas. We intend to continue working collaboratively with Microsoft to fully support future generations of Windows with AMD products,” a spokesman said. “Only AMD Fusion Accelerated Processing Units deliver powerful x86 CPU and GPU compute capabilities in a single-die processor -- a state-of-the-art example of a Windows 7-compliant SOC -- for today's HD video, 3D and data-intensive workloads.”
Intel, likewise, said people may be abuzz over ARM today, but by the time Windows 8 ships, x86 would face stomp ARM in both power and performance.
"Intel looks forward to Windows 8. By the time that OS starts to ramp in a couple of years, we will have the lowest power, highest performance chips in the market. One need only look at the creation of the netbook category to see what both companies can do. That said, we’re seeing growing interest in our Atom chips today on a variety of other OSs beyond Windows – Google TV, Chrome OS, MeeGo and several embedded OSs via Wind River come to mind," a spokesman said.