There has been a lot of interesting news the last few days. Boffo Apple earnings, antenna snarking, ebook shenanigans, the US Government saying jailbreaking and rooting are fair use…all of that stuff makes for a very interesting week in tech. However, I feel the most interesting thing I have heard in a while was the announcement that Microsoft and ARM have changed the nature of their decade long relationship.
They have moved a great deal closer according to an announcement yesterday. Neither company is saying much yet in terms of details, but it is clear something big is in the offing. Previously Microsoft was licensing ARM products on a one-by-one basis. Now according to ARM, Microsoft has access to the entire architecture, to work with ARM on product and chip designs from the ground up. Why? Well, as you my have guessed I have some thoughts on that….
Microsoft’s long term partner Intel, the company whose chips made the PC revolution possible and who has worked so closely with Windows that they are often known as WinTel, has always viewed ARM as a bitter rival and with good reason. For a time, Intel and ARM seemed content to operate in two different spheres and glower at each other from afar. Chips based on ARM’s architecture were designed around ultra-low power consumption and low prices while Intel’s x86 chips were designed for power. Therefore Intel made desktops and notebooks that needed that power while ARM made phones and handheld devices that needed small batteries. As a result, x86 chips from Intel had the raw power needed to run the full Windows operating system, while ARM chips could only run Windows Mobile and Windows CE.
The two companies seemed content to keep to their separate markets, until the awareness that we were rapidly seeing the end of the PC era. To fit into this new world Intel created the Atom chip, striving for low power consumption while still being able to run Windows on their x86 architecture and made the Netbook revolution possible. However, there are limits to the reach of the Atom and netbooks and Microsoft is very well aware of them. Intel seems very reluctant to provide major improvements in the Atom chips, for one thing. The second generation Atom provides a little better power management but no more performance then they had three years ago when they first burst on the scene. Therefore, while most netbooks are run by Atoms, very few smaller devices are…and this is a problem for Microsoft.
When Apple made it clear that tablets were going to be the big story in computing in 2010 instead of Netbooks, both Windows and Google rushed to offer competing products against the iPad. However to run Windows, tablets such as the HP Slate needed to use x86 chips, therefore Atoms, and battery life suffered. Google’s Android OS can run on ARM architecture, such as the popular Snapdragon and Hummingbird chipsets and can therefore run far longer on much smaller batteries. If Microsoft is really going to compete on the Tablet front, they are going to have to deal with that disadvantage….which is where this closer cooperation with ARM comes into play.
I think what we are seeing is the next phase of a movement away from creating Atom based Tablets to run Windows. The realization that 5 or 6 hour battery life would be a showstopper caused Microsoft to back away from the HP Slate (regardless of what HP ultimately does with the design) and the Courier both. If Microsoft is going to compete, they realized they needed to do it without Windows 7 and Atom chips. That had the added benefit of not cannibalizing netbooks as much, which would be important to now essential Asian allies like Asus and Acer.
My feeling is that Microsoft is working on a tablet design with ARM (perhaps using elements of the now patented Courier design) that would run a chip similar to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon for maximum battery life and graphics power. Traditionally, Microsoft has run Windows Mobile or Windows CE on ARM chips, as they did with numerous phones, PDAs and entertainment devices right up to and including the Zune HD which ran a form of Windows CE under the GUI (remember that the Tegra is an ARM based chipset). Windows Mobile however is dead and buried and its successor, Windows Phone, has already been declared by Microsoft off limits for tablets. That only leaves the new generation of WinCE, Windows 7 Embedded.
I think that early next year if not sooner we will begin to see prototypes of a Microsoft tablet running Windows 7 Embedded on an ARM chipset. Nvidia has already said they will be focusing the Tegra II on Android devices so likely the chip will be a new one, possibly involving a third partner. ARM will give a Microsoft Tablet the power and battery life it needs, while Windows 7 Embedded will give it the Windows environment since many Windows 7 applications and drivers run on WE7 as well and the desktop environment can include Aero, IE and the current Windows “look”.
Intel may not like it, but I predict that an ARM Chip will be what Microsoft needs to truly reenter the mobile market rather than the Atom….and the mobile market will be defining computing in the next decade.
Perhaps WinTel is soon to be joined by…WArm?
OK, the name needs work…but admit it, they could make a heck of a tablet together.