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Microsoft Signs Pact with ARM, Threatens "Wintel"

One of the most significant event of the year was Microsoft's new pact with ARM Holdings in late July.While formally the agreement extends the collaborative relationship between the two companies, it may play a role for the whole industry that is hard to overestimate. In particular, this may be a threat the domination of the x86 industry, an even hard to overestimate.

Since 1997 Microsoft and ARM have worked together on software and devices across the embedded, consumer and mobile spaces, enabling many companies to deliver user experiences on a broad portfolio of ARM-based products. In particularly, Microsoft developed operating systems (OSs), including Windows Embedded, Windows CE, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone that could run on ARM-based microprocessors or system-on-chips. This time, however, Microsoft licensed ARM architecture and got closer access to ARM's intellectual property (IP), which could enable the software giant to develop its own chips based on ARM's IP or use learn how to build an efficient OS for those chips. Any scenario reshapes a lot of markets.

Windows Next on ARM?

The most intriguing thing about the official Microsoft-ARM announcement is whether Microsoft will actually enable support of ARM processors with its next-generation Windows system. It may be Windows 8, which is expected to be very flexible in terms of configuration when it comes to different PC form-factors. Or it may be a version of Windows 7 designed specifically for PCs in tablet form-factor.

The software giant is reportedly preparing to unveil a version of Windows operating system (OS) for microprocessors featuring ARM architecture for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show. The report states that the forthcoming operating system will also be able to work with x86 microprocessors by Advanced Micro Devices and Intel Corp., which may mean that eventually Microsoft's OSs will generally be platform and microprocessor agnostic, something that has been rumoured for some time. Keeping in mind that partners of ARM, AMD and Intel either offer or plan to offer system-on-chips for tablets (and not desktops or notebooks), Microsoft's first "universal" OS may indeed be aimed specifically at slates. But there are different opinions here.

"The rumor has been circulating for a year that other ARM licensees have ported Windows to ARM," said Jon Peddie, the head of Jon Peddie Research market tracking agency.

"I would be very surprised if Microsoft moved Windows 7 or 8 onto ARM. Even if they did, there would not be any applications to run on it, since the apps all run only on x86 CPUs. I believe Microsoft will focus on ARM for Windows Phone and maybe tablets, since the full x86/Win 7 environment is a little too bulky for these low-powered devices," said Nathan Brookwood, the principal analyst at Insight 64.

The clash between ARM and x86 is heating up, even though it is not seen widely at the moment. In fact, it is more than a battle between architectures of central processing units (CPUs), it is a fight for consumers' minds, Microsoft needs that badly now that Apple and Google are escalating in smartphones that feature long battery lives because of power efficiency provided by ARM-based chips..

Potentially, it may be logical for Microsoft to enable ARM compatibility with Windows and create some kind of emulator (which is also why it needs to license ARM architecture) to run previous-generation software.

Impact on Traditional x86 Suppliers

In case Microsoft starts to work more heavily on operating system(s) for ARM-based devices, which are by definition low-power, there will be pretty obvious consequences for x86 low-power chip suppliers, namely Advanced Micro Devices, Intel Corp. and Via Technologies. To make the matters worse, ARM is attempting to enter the market of servers with specifically-designed chips. Needless to say that with server-class chips at hand it is easy to address market of client computers too.

"[The agreement] will impact the tablet and netbook segments and that is one reason you see Microsoft countering with MeeGo and HP with WebOS," said Jon Peddie.

Indeed, Microsoft does not care about Atom or Athlon, what it cares about are deployments of its own operating systems. With ARM support and proper Windows implementation, it does allow Microsoft to compete on emerging devices' markets and maintain its leadership on the desktop/notebook and server markets.

"[The decision] puts Microsoft into the game since they seemingly cannot get the right combination of features, memory footprint and power requirements with its mobile OS," implied Mr. Peddie.

Perhaps, Microsoft even attempts to create an OS for HDTVs, Blu-ray players or set-top-boxes (which feature ARM-based SoCs) in order to rival a number of competing platforms, such as Google TV. Or maybe Microsoft wants to develop its own chips to power various devices featuring its software.

Chips from Microsoft?

Microsoft quietly announced formation of its chip design group back in 2006. So far the design group seem to have worked only on various chips for Microsoft Xbox 360 console, in particular, they shrunk them in sizes and created single-chip CPU-GPU code-named Valhalla system-on-chip (which combined IBM Xenon processor with ATI Xenos graphics and memory controller). Thanks to the new license, the company will be able to create its own SoCs for a wide range of own-brand devices.

"[Microsoft] must see opportunities to optimize an ARM core in ways that will make their own software for these emerging consumer devices (phones, tablets, game platforms, appliances, etc) run better than they could on a standard ARM processor. Enhancing an ARM core in this manner will take several years, so don’t expect any instant gratification here. I certainly understand why companies like Apple or Google want to differentiate their products with custom SOCs that integrate a unique combination of CPU cores, GPU cores, and peripherals, but I’m not sure Microsoft can enhance a standard ARM core enough to make a meaningful difference in the end product," said Nathan Brookwood.

But maybe the software giant also plans chips for others?

"I doubt that they would design chips for other companies to those other companies’ specifications, but Microsoft could sell a chip they optimized for their software to third parties. Microsoft understands the virtues of a leveraged business model. If they saw a way to lever a proprietary chip design that gives their software a market advantage, I am sure they would find a way to license that technology to others who want to sell their software," said Nathan Brookwood.

Meanwhile, analyst Jon Peddie believes that Microsoft will only tailor software and will leave design and manufacturing to its "fab/ODM" partners.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft starts to design its own chips and will eventually offer a variety of products directly competing with the company's customers' offerings and also Apple-branded gadgets. Based on what we have seen from Microsoft so far, there will be a long road between the announcement and actual products. Perhaps, we will not see any outcomes before Windows 8. Likely, the ramifications may only be observed by the time when "Windows 9" hits the market.

 
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