Hardware companies prepare for Windows on Arm

Chip and system makers are cautious about the platform, which might crack open the PC market

Hardware companies are preparing for the future launch of Microsoft's Windows OS on Arm but have differing views of what kinds of devices the OS will actually go into.

Microsoft announced on Wednesday at the International Consumer Electronics Show that the next version of Windows would run on Arm processors. Some chip makers and PC vendors at CES this week are leaning toward using the OS on mobile devices, but companies such as Nvidia are building hopes that porting Windows to Arm will finally give them an opportunity in the PC space.

Most of the world's PCs run on Windows, which works only with x86 chipsets from Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and Via. With Windows for Arm, users will have an alternative to move away from x86 to Arm-based computers.

Arm is used in most of the world's smartphones and tablets, and when Windows becomes available for the platform, Arm can think of going upstream into PCs and servers, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

But at a practical level, it's likely that the Arm-based Windows won't be seen any time soon, as it's a major effort to port the OS, Gold said.

"It is likely that we will see a subset of Windows hitting Arm before there is a full version. So, it's likely to be targeted at tablets and such," Gold said.

Microsoft said Windows on Arm would initially work on Arm-based chips from Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, which mostly go into smartphones and tablets. Just as Microsoft announced Windows for Arm on Wednesday at CES, Nvidia announced its first CPUs for PCs and servers, code-named Denver, which are based on the Arm architecture.

Nvidia's chief scientist, Bill Dally wrote in an e-mail that the Wintel domination gave users no choice on operating systems or chip architectures, and that Microsoft's announcement will help to free PCs, workstations and servers from the "hegemony and inefficiency" of the x86 architecture.

Intel cannot turn its back on competition, so Nvidia can come and play in the PC market with its Denver CPUs, said Mooly Eden, vice president and general manager of the PC Client Group at Intel.

"At the end of the day, it has to do a lot with the microprocessor. If you look at the performance of an Arm system and you look at the performance of an Intel system, I believe there is a huge difference," Eden said.

Intel's Sandy Bridge chips are able to carry out data-intensive tasks, for example, and questions about Arm's capabilities to handle such workloads have yet to be answered, Eden said.

Intel will continue to work with Microsoft on writing Windows to the Intel architecture, Eden said. Intel is also improving its low-power Atom processor to put pressure on Arm in the smartphone and tablet space.

Texas Instruments and Qualcomm said they are collaborating with Microsoft on Windows for Arm but currently are keeping their focus on mobile computing. The companies didn't comment on whether they aspired to the PC market, other than saying that Windows on Arm could open up new opportunities for them.

Texas Instruments currently offers OMAP chips, which are based on the Arm design and primarily are used in smartphones and tablets.

"As of today, TI remains on focused on mobile computing opportunities, for which the OMAP platform is well positioned," said Heather Ailara, a Texas Instruments spokeswoman.

PC makers, caught in the middle of the architecture battle, are waiting and watching how the situation pans out.

Lenovo's president and chief operating officer, Rory Read, said the move toward Windows on Arm is tied to the emerging convergence of devices and seamless data flow between those devices.

"What's so powerful about Microsoft's announcement is not just that Windows is going to be on Arm -- that's huge -- but it's where the trend is going and how that's going to move toward this whole convergence environment," Read said.

As a device maker, the company wants to offer products that augment the seamless data flow. Lenovo will keep its options open on the processors it adopts for future devices.

"We'll look at the whole portfolio and react to it," Read said.

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Tags CESAdvanced Micro Deviceshardware systemsqualcommnvidiatabletsComponentsLenovotablet PCslaptopsprocessorsCES 2011intel

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