"Wintel" is over. Today Qualcomm and Microsoft announced they're going to be able to run real Windows 10, including Win32 emulation for older desktop applications, on Qualcomm's ARM-based Snapdragon processors in the second half of 2017.
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"Bringing Windows 10 to life with a range of thin, light, power-efficient and always-connected devices, powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform, is the next step in delivering the innovations our customers love—touch, pen, Windows Hello, and more—anytime, anywhere," Terry Meyerson, executive VP of Windows at Microsoft, said in a press release.
This doesn't spell the end of Windows 10 Mobile, although the phone-centric version of the OS is on life support with very low sales. Full Windows 10 will probably require the most powerful Qualcomm processors, leaving room at the low end for a pared-down mobile experience, if Microsoft chooses to keep supporting that.
Qualcomm's press release hints instead at thin, light, laptops and tablets with "thin, fan-less designs and long battery life," according to Cristiano Amon, executive vice president of Qualcomm Technologies.
Not RT Again
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Windows and Intel x86 processors have been tied together for decades. Every version of Windows for the past 15 years has required an x86 compatible processor to run its full functionality. While companies other than Intel have made x86 processors, most notably AMD, that tight integration has kept Intel dominant in the business computing market.
While Intel dominates on desktops and laptops, the competing ARM architecture rules mobile devices. Most smartphones and many tablets run on ARM, with Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung, and Mediatek being among the major makers of ARM processors. ARM chips were historically known to do better work on less power than Intel chips, and Intel never made much headway into the smartphone market.
Microsoft attempted to bridge the gap with an ARM-compatible version of Windows, Windows RT, in 2012. But RT bombed because it didn't offer the desktop interface and legacy application support that Windows consumers expected from the platform; the strategy was abandoned with Windows 10.
The new announcement strives to avoid RT's mistakes by noting "Win32 apps through emulation," which means that future Qualcomm-based laptops won't be stuck with de-featured, low-power versions of apps. But that strategy has its own potential pitfalls, as apps and especially games run under emulation may be considerably slower than the same apps run natively on Intel processors.
The dual Qualcomm-Intel strategy definitely still relies on Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform, which would automatically generate apps for both architectures, but many developers haven't been bothering to develop for UWP because there isn't much of a market for non-Intel or non-desktop Windows. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. Microsoft pushed UWP heavily at this year's Build developer conference.
We'll see what happens in late 2017—possibly with the launch of a rumored (and frequently rumor-delayed) Surface Phone late next year.