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Thought Microsoft Windows on ARM Was Dead? Think Again.

By Evan Niu, CFA - Jan 16, 2016 at 8:00AM

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The tech titan may be considering support for ARM-based chips in future versions of Windows 10.

For a while there, it seemed like ARM Holdings (ARMH) might have had a shot at getting a piece of the global PC market, albeit a small one. A few years back, Microsoft (MSFT 0.71%) released a Windows variant optimized around ARM-based chips, Windows RT, representing a departure from the traditional x86 architecture.

It flopped. Badly.

Back for more?
However, it seems that the software giant may be interested in giving ARM-based chips another shot. Right now, the only ARM-based devices that run Windows 10 are those that use Windows 10 Mobile, which is meant for phones and tablets with a displays of 8 inches or smaller. There have been some other hints, too, that Microsoft is considering ARM again, such as references to the architecture within developer documentation.

The Redmond giant is now looking for a new senior program manager that would be responsible for building a strategy for bringing Windows to 64-bit ARM chips that will align with Redstone, according to a new job posting spotted by PCWorld. Redstone is the codename for an important wave of software updates scheduled for 2016. The updates will optimize Windows 10 for a wider range of new devices and hardware configurations.

If it failed the first time, can the second time be the charm?

Hedging bets
The primary reason why Windows on ARM failed the first time was software compatibility. It's a pretty tall order to ask a massive army of developers to reoptimize their apps for a different chip architecture, and most simply chose not to. The net result was that Windows RT couldn't support legacy applications, and there weren't many new ones to choose from.

All of the benefits of ARM-based chips, such as lower cost and greater power efficiency, are wasted if there are no applications to use. Meanwhile, Intel (INTC -2.43%) continues to make impressive progress with improving the power efficiency of its own chips, closing one of those gaps. At the same time, ARM-based chipmakers have dramatically improved the performance of their chips, particularly with the latest batch of 64-bit chips.

It's quite possible that Microsoft is really just exploring ARM-based chips again as a hedge, since the ARM camp and the x86 camp are essentially trying to meet in the middle to balance performance with power efficiency. Windows 10 has long been characterized as a singular operating system that can run on essentially any device, and broadening the support for ARM-based chips beyond mobile devices could serve as a risk-reduction measure while preserving future optionality.

Evan Niu, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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