Windows 8 to come in ARM, SoC flavors

Microsoft logoDuring a press briefing today at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky revealed some of the company's plans for Windows 8, the next major version of its flagship operating system. One of the most significant revelations is that Microsoft intends to support the energy-efficient ARM architecture alongside x86. Windows 8 will be able to run on SoCs made by Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and TI—opening the door for further Windows growth in the increasingly important mobile and embedded space.

The real question is how Microsoft intends to address software portability challenges and bridge the gap between the two architectures for third-party application developers. During the presentation, Microsoft demonstrated its own Office suite running on an ARM SoC, but it's unclear how the port was executed. Sinofsky says that Microsoft hopes to leverage the flexibility of the Windows kernel to offer real convergence in mobile computing, blurring the boundaries between device categories and offering a Windows experience that runs across a variety of form factors.

Windows 8

The real strength of Windows, however, is its broad ecosystem of third-party software—much of which is tightly bound to the x86 architecture. Without a path to bring that software to ARM, Microsoft could face an uphill battle making Windows a compelling platform on ARM SoCs.

Microsoft's .NET development framework offers a possible answer to the portability question, because applications built with .NET technology are compiled down to bytecode that is executed by an architecture-neutral runtime environment. It's worth noting, however, that a number of .NET applications still call down into native platform code.

During the press conference, Microsoft expressed enthusiasm for Intel's SoC offerings and AMD's new Fusion APU, but the company's newfound interest in bringing the full Windows experience to ARM alongside x86 could pose a threat to the dominance of x86 chips in netbooks, ultraportables, and tablets.

Microsoft also showed off Surface 2.0, the latest incarnation of its large form factor touch hardware. The technology has come on by leaps and bounds. The old Surface was a large table, containing a screen, multiple cameras, and a PC running Windows Vista with the custom Surface software on top. It was extremely bulky, and the table form factor greatly limited its applications.

The new Surface is a screen just a few inches thick. It can be mounted horizontally, akin to the old Surface, but now also has the option of vertical mounting. It's tough—it apparently includes the largest piece of Gorilla Glass of any device on the market, and will withstand having a full can of beer dropped on it from a height of 18 inches—and it's precise. Each individual pixel in the new Surface can report touch and image information, allowing much more precise tracking of touch and gestures, and enabling scenarios such as holding a piece of paper up to the screen and having it instantly scanned.

Behind the scenes, the new Surface is running Windows 7 on an AMD system-on-chip. Microsoft did not show off the system's software—though may do so later tonight when CEO Steve Ballmer delivers his keynote presentation—and did not talk about pricing or availability, though promised that the new device would be more affordable, and hence more widespread, than its predecessor.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: ARM, Microsoft, Windows 8

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