The New Pact with ARM Will Open Up New Markets for Microsoft

Microsoft's New Agreement with ARM Opens New Doors, But Which Exactly?

by Anton Shilov
07/23/2010 | 11:28 PM

Although Microsoft Corp.  has been collaborating with ARM for about thirteen years now, the Friday's announcement that the software giant had licensed ARM architecture was a surprise. The new pact will now open loads of new doors for Microsoft, but it will also likely redefine the whole industry as Microsoft is on offense for smart consumer electronics, slate-type personal computers and other emerging product categories. We decided to discuss the ramifications of the new pact with two leading industry analysts.

Windows 8 on ARM?


The most intriguing thing about the announcement is whether Microsoft will actually enable support of ARM processors with its next-generation Windows 8 system, which is expected to be very flexible in terms of configuration when it comes to different PC form-factors. 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.

Possibly, it is logical for Microsoft to enable ARM compatibility with Windows 8 and create some kind of emulator (which is also why it needs to license ARM architecture) to run previous-generation software.

Slides describing Windows 8 were released several weeks ago. Among other things they indicated that the OS will be tablet-friendly, whereas x86 offerings are not exactly good for very slim devices, at least now. Windows 8 is expected to be very configurable for different types of form-factors and ignoring ARM in the tablet space will at least be strange.

But maybe Mr. Brookwood is correct: Windows 8 is supposed to be out shortly and exploring ARM architecture takes time, which is why ARM-based CPUs will only work with something like next-after-next-generation, e.g., Windows 9.

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.

"[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.

"[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.

Next-Gen Consumer Electronics May Get Windows

The war is incoming for the market of mobile devices and consumer electronics (CE) products, and they are not exactly personal computers.

"The next-generation of HDTVs, Blu-ray players and set-top-boxes will be 'intelligent' and there is a lot for Microsoft to compete for. Perhaps, it will even release a new OS for CE (which is much unlikely)," said Jon Peddie.

Potentially, Microsoft's collaboration with ARM will enable next-generation consumer electronics with a new software platform that will compete against things like Google TV as well as various projects from Intel, Apple, etc. Only time will tell whether Microsoft's attempt is successful. Jon Peddie believes that there will be loads more intelligent consumer electronics in general and slate-type PCs (which can easily be considered as electronic book readers) and those devices are the most logical candidates for Microsoft-ARM hardware/software. But it is not that easy, according to the analyst at Insight 64.

"[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.

With the announcement, Microsoft is greatly projected to widen its hardware offerings with own-brand tablets, mobile phones and other things. Considering the fact that Microsoft's Kin and Zune essentially failed on the market, the new attempt should focus not only on chips inside but on the consumer qualities and services of new devices.

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). For its own Zune HD player and Kin phone Microsoft decided to use Nvidia Corp.'s Tegra processor. Thanks to the new license, the company will be able to create its own SoCs for a wide range of own-brand or third party devices. 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.

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

Long Road

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.