Windows 10 On ARM: 7 Observations - InformationWeek
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10/13/2014
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Michael Endler
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Windows 10 On ARM: 7 Observations

Microsoft reps have been tight-lipped about the future of Windows on ARM devices but the company has many reasons to remain invested in non-Intel architectures.

Windows 10: 11 Big Changes
Windows 10: 11 Big Changes
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Microsoft's traditionally cozy relationship with Intel at times has appeared chilly over the last few years, with the former investing in ARM processors and the latter making chips for devices that run Google's Android and Chrome OS.

But these days, hints of tension between the two companies have mostly disappeared. PC sales have stabilized, keeping Intel and Microsoft's paths tightly linked. And thanks to new classes of super-efficient Intel chips, the Windows catalogue now includes powerful, ultras-slim 2-in-1s at the high end and a variety of cheap but surprisingly capable PCs and tablets at the low end.

The reversed dynamic raises a question: What's become of Microsoft's ambitions for devices that use ARM processors?

[For more on Microsoft's mobile strategy, see Microsoft Surface Pro's Future: 5 Facts.]

Indeed, "Wintel's" resurgence isn't the only reason to question Microsoft's investment in ARM devices. Just last week, the company confirmed it will continue to make Surface Pro devices but declined to answer any specific questions about ARM-based models. From Windows RT's failure to a recent report that Microsoft plans to focus Surface development around Intel chips, little about Microsoft's recent ARM efforts inspires confidence. What do we know about Microsoft's strategy for ARM devices, and what it will mean for customers? Here are seven observations about Microsoft's ARM agenda.

1. Windows 10 will run on at least some ARM devices -- but which ones?
Microsoft reps have abstractly confirmed that Windows has a future on ARM devices, but outside of the obvious fact that the company will have to support ARM-based smartphones, it's not clear what this means.

Why are ARM-based Windows smartphones an obvious play? A year ago, Nokia was the only company committed to Windows smartphones. But, by eliminating license costs and relaxing hardware requirements, Microsoft recently convinced more OEMs to join in. The hardware move enabled OEMs to easily take successful Android devices and basically re-release them as Windows Phone options -- a strategy HTC followed with its One (M8). Intel's mobile chips have come a long way, but ARM remains the smartphone standard. Unless Microsoft intends to eliminate one of OEMs' easiest means of producing Windows smartphones, at least some flavor of Windows 10 had better run on ARM.

Microsoft has struggled with ARM-based tablets, such as its Surface 2.
Microsoft has struggled with ARM-based tablets, such as its Surface 2.

But will Microsoft support ARM beyond smartphones? Microsoft executive VP and OS head Terry Myerson confirmed last month that Windows 10 will replace both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.1. Does this mean that an ARM-compatible version of Windows 10 for smartphones might be used for tablets as well, somewhat like Apple uses iOS for both iPhones and iPads? That's the outcome rumors have painted for months, but where will Microsoft draw the lines?

Company execs have said they won't share more details about Windows 10 mobile devices until early next year. In the meantime, the difference between a large smartphone and a small tablet has become increasingly arbitrary, support for call functionality excluded. Will Microsoft support both Intel and ARM for tablets and smartphones but only Intel for 2-in-1s and more conventional PCs? Will some 2-in-1 devices still use ARM chips, like the Surface RT and Surface 2 have?

2. No ARM-based Windows tablet has succeeded.
To understand where Microsoft might go next with ARM tablets, it's useful to look at what's failed so far.

Surface RT, Microsoft's original ARM tablet, sold significantly below internal targets, leading to a nearly $1 billion write-down. The company hasn't revealed any sales figures for Surface 2, but earnings reports indicate the product family has remained unprofitable. Microsoft's second ARM tablet occasionally sells out through certain channels, but given the financial sting Microsoft took from the first Surface, the tight availability likely has more to do with more realistic inventory management than a surge in sales.

Other manufacturers have altogether abandoned ARM-based Windows tablets. A number of affordable new Windows tablets have recently hit the market, but all of them use Intel chips and run the full version of Windows 8.1. OEMs continue to put ARM chips in Android tablets and some Chromebooks, but they've avoided Windows RT like it's some kind of malware.

3. Windows on ARM has failed due to hardware, software, and marketing.
The failures listed in the previous item owe to a variety of bad Microsoft decisions. With Windows RT, Microsoft was trying to forge a presence in the tablet market, but it released hardware that reminded people of laptops. Compounding matters, the company saddled its ARM devices with an OS that lacked not only support from third-party investors (which naturally takes time to build up), but also polished first-party apps.

The omission of great first-party apps was particularly damning. Sometime in the next few months, Microsoft is expected to finally reveal a

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio
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PhilBiker
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PhilBiker,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/17/2014 | 4:14:26 PM
I agree: Being able to run on ARM is important - be hardware agnostic if possible.
As a very satisfied owner of a Surface RT tablet, two quotes stood out for me from the article:

"As mentioned, previous ARM-powered Windows tablets failed partly due to poor marketing and customer communication. "

and 

"Even if Intel chips serve Microsoft's needs for the present, continued ARM development is prudent over the long term."  (which followed a discussion of how ARM chips are getting to be as powerful as desktop chips, at least in the Apple hardware.

Windows RT is an amazing OS, and the RT based Surface and Nokia tablets are really, really great pieces.  Surface RT and WWinodws on ARM certainly did not fail due to any lack of technicalogical merit - they are first rate machines!  Windows 8.1 RT is really the best of both worlds - tablet and PC.  Having Office bundled makes it an incredible bargain.  It runs great.  It would be short sighted to abandon it, - instead, open it up to legacy Windows x86 code (if it is feasible) and continue to run with it.  The customer can only win, though it may cost Microsoft in the short/medium run.
hho927
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hho927,
User Rank: Ninja
10/17/2014 | 3:05:49 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
I'm not into hardware but I think ARM instructions are very limited. You can keep the NT kernel but you have to re-architect it to fit ARM. It may be 1 instruction on ARM can take 10 instructions on x86 (and vice versa)

Modified windows to fit touch is not going to work well. They need a touch oriented GUI. If an app is not designed for touch then it does not make sense to run it on a touch device.

I use a buch of devices (with different OSes) and that is my conclusion.
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
10/16/2014 | 10:35:01 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
Based on devices running Windows Phone, it has lower memory requirements than Android.  I have a Nokia 520 and it ran Windows Phone 8 just fine with 512MB RAM.  After I upgraded to WIndows 8.1, it struggles to remain "fast and fluid".  It would run better with 1GB of RAM.  However, Microsoft is still releasing it's entry-level model with 512MB RAM.

I also own a One Plus One Android 4.4.4 w/CyanogenMod.  Freshly booted it's pretty close to using about 1GB of RAM.  Almost identical to my Dell V8 Pro Windows tablet.

At least regarding memory and "bloatedness", I don't see much difference between Windows and Android.  Based on experience, I'd actually feel comfortable saying Windows Phone is more efficient from a processor perspective than Android.  My One Plus One has a Snapdragon 801 2.5Ghz quad core.  It's a very snappy performer but it doesn't seem any more fluid than my lowly Nokia 520 with a 1Ghz single core -- at least with Windows Phone 8.  (As I said, 8.1 needs more than 512MB RAM and is sluggish switching between apps and screens.

 
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
10/16/2014 | 10:26:12 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
Why is running on DEC Alpha so different from ARM that porting is difficult or impossible?

Why is Android bad on x86?  It's just Linux, isn't it?  Is it the Dalvik VM that doesn't run well on x86?  Dalvik is open-source Apache and likely "C"/C++ code.  x86 processors have a rich history of excellent "C" compilers.  I find it difficult to believe Dalvik is at a severe disadvantage on the x86 architecture.  Linux runs great on x86 as well as PowerPC and lots of different processor architectures.  What makes Android so special on ARM that apparently only it and iOS have game?  What makes Windows fail?

Windows CE was definitely just an altered Windows and totally unsuitable on small form factor devices and barely supported touch.  It was awful.  However, Microsoft's new "modern" nee "Metro" world is a very touch-first centric approach.  It also runs applications in special sandboxes to offer greater protection than offered by native Windows apps.

Why does it matter that Android has a different user space/can't run most regular Linux apps?  You seemingly state this as a great advantage.  Why?
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
10/15/2014 | 1:18:33 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
I'm with @rradina on this, be very interested to know exactly why you think MS is failing. Windows has always had "bloated" reputation, Linux much more slick and compact in code. Is it strictly a matter that Windows can't be (or hasn't been) stripped down enough to reduce the number of instructions the chip must execute? Or are the reasons much deeper and much more technical?

I remember using Assembler back in college to write o/s. Mostly a lot of "move register" commands, not much you can tell those chips to do. So it seems like running the fewest instructions possible is about the only coding technique you can use for both performance and power use.
hho927
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hho927,
User Rank: Ninja
10/15/2014 | 12:35:01 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
1) DEC Alpha is a different than ARM. You can port your os from DEC Alpha to ARM, but your os is not going to run efficiently. One would think android runs better on x86 but Android is not that good on x86 platform.

2) Android GUI was designed with touch interface in mind. MS GUI is just altered 'windows' to make it fit on a touch screen. Android has a diffrent 'user space'/can't run most regular linux apps on android.
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
10/15/2014 | 10:37:08 AM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
You haven't provided any credible argument to support these assertions:

***********************

SAID BY YOU:

"No! The reason they fail because instead of comming up with a new architecture on Arm, they force windows down to arm. It was started by Gates. Force Windows on everything. Windows CE was terrible. Windows 8 on arm is not that great.

Except GUIs, nothing changed. All latest windows are still based on NT architecture (which was based on OS2 and DEC VMS)."

...

"Google has made architectural changes to Android (which is based on Linux) to fit ARM/phones/tablets."

***********************

What new architecture are they missing?  What does the term "fit" mean?  Is it RAM size?  Power management?

Whatever "fit" means, what did Google do for Linux on ARM that Microsoft has failed to do for NT on ARM?  Other than RISC vs. CISC, what's special about ARM vs. Intel?  ARM CPUs have power management.  Intel has power management.  If it's memory requirements, NT started on machines with 16MB of RAM.  What changes did Google make to Linux to make it fit phones/tablets that Microsoft has failed to do or simply cannot do with NT?

Remember, your original assertions are such that Google has done for Linux what Microsoft has failed to do for Windows and that is why it will continue to fail.  Can you support those assertion with a reasoned argument?
hho927
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hho927,
User Rank: Ninja
10/14/2014 | 7:57:13 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
Google changed Binder, ashmem, pmem, logger, wakelocks (power management). I answered you. RISC is a technology. There are many RISC cpus.

 
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
10/14/2014 | 7:38:47 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
You didn't answer my question. If you don't know, fine but you've made made a few significant statements regarding Microsoft's mistakes that need more context.
hho927
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hho927,
User Rank: Ninja
10/14/2014 | 7:23:11 PM
Re: If Windows has never succeeded on an ARM device...
ARM is Acorn RISC Machine. RISC was first a concept from Berkeley. Acorn had limited resources so they tried to make it as simple as possible. The result was a processor that uses so little power. And that is a major advantage on phones,tablets.

Every vendor come up with their own RISC version (DEC, Alpha, SUN, IBM, Motorola, etc). Ironically Acorn went bankrupt after It spun off ARM.
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