Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Windows on ARM Is Back, and It Makes Sense This Time

By Timothy Green - Dec 13, 2017 at 8:25AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Microsoft's second attempt put Windows on devices powered by mobile processors looks like a winner.

Chip giant Intel (INTC 0.82%) and perpetual runner-up Advanced Micro Devices (AMD 0.20%) have benefited greatly from the fact that Microsoft (MSFT 1.28%) Windows, the overwhelmingly dominant PC operating system, can only run on x86 CPUs. The market for PC CPUs is a duopoly thanks to this limitation.

Microsoft attempted a version of Windows that ran on ARM processors, the standard for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, back in 2012 with Windows RT. It was an unmitigated failure. The problem: Windows RT could only run applications built specifically for the platform. Standard windows applications were incompatible, leaving Windows RT with a hobbled software ecosystem that led to its downfall.

Microsoft is trying again, and this time its plan makes a lot more sense. At Qualcomm's (QCOM 0.98%) Snapdragon Tech Summit earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled the first PCs under its Always Connected PC initiative. These PCs are powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors, the same processors found in flagship Android devices. The core features include integrated LTE connectivity and a battery life in excess of 20 hours, as well as support for the full Windows 10 operating system. That means the entire catalog of Windows applications, minus a few exceptions, can be run on these ARM PCs.

Terry Myerson, Windows and Devices Group Executive Vice President, at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit.

Terry Myerson, Windows and Devices Group executive vice president, at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit. Image source: Microsoft.

It's different this time

Microsoft clearly learned from its mistakes. Instead of creating a new flavor of Windows, Windows 10 has been ported to run on the Snapdragon 835 chip. Standard windows applications that require an x86 processor will be emulated, meaning that the x86 instructions will be translated into ARM instructions.

Emulation will introduce a performance penalty, and we'll have to wait until devices are out in the wild to know exactly how severe that penalty is. Whether these ARM PCs will be powerful enough to effectively multitask, running multiple emulated applications simultaneously, remains to be seen.

The Always Connected PC initiative isn't limited to Qualcomm chips. AMD announced a collaboration with Qualcomm that will pair its Ryzen Mobile processors with Qualcomm's LTE modems, for example. But the most exciting part of this effort from Microsoft is the introduction of a third player in the PC CPU market.

Battling the iPad and breaking the duopoly

Apple's (AAPL 0.96%) iPad has matured into a viable alternative to a laptop for users with light computing needs. The Always Connected PC initiative seems like an effort on the part of Microsoft to win back that crowd. The iPad has also made inroads among business users, so it's not surprising that Microsoft emphasized the benefits for organizations when it unveiled these new devices.

I doubt that ARM chips will proliferate to other parts of the PC market anytime soon, given the downsides of emulation and the fact that these Snapdragon chips are designed for mobile devices. But a Qualcomm chip running Windows 10, and supporting x86 applications, is not a positive development for Intel or AMD. At least in a portion of the laptop market, the duopoly will be no more.

Microsoft and Qualcomm are the big winners, along with consumers who will now have more options. For Microsoft, the goal is to put Windows on as many devices as possible while preventing competing platforms like the iPad and Chromebooks from further encroaching on its turf. For Qualcomm, this opens up a whole new market for its chips.

These ARM PCs may not be available until early next year. But when they do launch, they have the potential to shake up the PC industry.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Apple Inc. Stock Quote
Apple Inc.
$142.92 (0.96%) $1.36
Intel Corporation Stock Quote
Intel Corporation
$36.99 (0.82%) $0.30
Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
$266.21 (1.28%) $3.36
Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. Stock Quote
Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.
$75.35 (0.20%) $0.15
QUALCOMM Incorporated Stock Quote
QUALCOMM Incorporated
$127.06 (0.98%) $1.23

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 07/07/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.