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article imageMicrosoft hints at the Surface Phone with new Windows 10 for ARM

By James Walker     Dec 8, 2016 in Technology
Microsoft has announced that the Windows 10 desktop can now run on the ARM-based processors used in mobile devices. The development hints at the emergence of a new class of devices capable of powering smartphone and desktop experiences.
Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 on ARM at its WinHEC conference in Shenzhen today. For the first time, the full version of Windows 10 is capable of running on smartphone processors. Previously, only Windows 10 Mobile supported the ARM chips used in the overwhelming majority of mobile devices.
Microsoft is using emulation to get the Windows 10 desktop onto the ARM architecture. The operating system runs no differently to any other device. Traditional desktop apps launch and run alongside the Universal Windows apps supported by Windows 10 Mobile. Existing peripheral devices and enterprise domain facilities also operate as usual with no perceptible differences.
The engineering that's made the achievement possible is significant. Excluding its mobile platforms, this is the second time Microsoft has tried to make desktop Windows run on ARM. The first attempt was the ill-fated and severely limited Windows RT.
Corporate Vice President  Windows Planning  Mike Angiulo demonstrates some of the hardware at the Wi...
Corporate Vice President, Windows Planning, Mike Angiulo demonstrates some of the hardware at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview event in Barcelona, Spain, February 29, 2012
File photo: Microsoft
After confusing customers and being largely ignored by device manufacturers, Microsoft quietly abandoned the platform and let it disappear into obscurity. This time around, the company's making a more concerted effort though. There are no limitations as far as users are concerned, enabling desktop applications and games to be powered by a smartphone processor. It's a milestone in the evolution of the Windows platform, opening the desktop to millions of users who only own a mobile device.
"To deliver on our customers’ growing needs to create on the go, we announced today that Windows 10 is coming to ARM through our partnership with Qualcomm," said Microsoft. "For the first time ever, our customers will be able to experience the Windows they know with all the apps, peripherals, and enterprise capabilities they require, on a truly mobile, power efficient, always-connected cellular PC."
In a video uploaded after the event, Microsoft demonstrated Windows 10 being run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820. The processor powers many of the flagship smartphones launched in early 2016. There's no discernible performance issues while browsing the web or watching video.
Untitled
HP / Microsoft
Microsoft then provided the ultimate test, launching the full, desktop version of Adobe Photoshop on a mobile processor. The app launched quickly and enabled its full editing set. None of the apps used had been modified to support ARM processors.
The vast majority of existing Windows programs can now run on ARM without any developer intervention. The only exceptions are 64-bit desktop programs that aren't yet supported by the emulation layer. Microsoft's hasn't said if this restriction will be lifted in the future. Very few apps are currently compiled for 64-bit systems.
Windows 10 for ARM isn't just an engineering achievement. Microsoft is working with its partners to create devices that will run the OS. This will give way to a new class of mobile tablets and laptops that run the full version of Windows but have a similar battery life to smartphones. They'll support cellular connectivity for always-on mobile networking powered by an embedded SIM card. Data plans will be sold through the Windows Store.
Continuum for phones
Continuum for phones
"With Windows 10 on cellular PCs, we will help everyone make the most of the air around them," said Microsoft. "We look forward to seeing these new devices with integrated cellular connectivity and the great experiences people love like touch, pen and Windows Hello, in market as early as next year."
The new platform also hints at the future of Windows 10 Mobile. Microsoft's unsuccessful smartphone OS now holds less than one percent of global market share. Despite this statistic, Microsoft has consistently stated its dedication to smartphones, recently saying it's creating the "ultimate mobile device."
Today's announcement provides some insight into what that might look like. Rather than run Windows 10 Mobile, future Windows phones could just run Windows 10. In the final evolution of Microsoft's Continuum technology, they could then morph into full desktop PCs when connected to a monitor.
This experience would provide the complete Windows desktop and support for apps like Photoshop. After years of work, Microsoft could finally create a smartphone that's the only device you need to own.
Windows 10 can now run on ARM-based mobile processors
Windows 10 can now run on ARM-based mobile processors
Microsoft
Microsoft has previously said it will launch no new mobile products until it’s sure the time is right and the technology is ready. With all the evidence combined, it seems feasible that the long-rumoured "Surface Phone" could become the first smartphone that's also a full Windows PC.
While it's all speculation at present, Microsoft's path forward in mobile devices is slowly becoming apparent. It's been a long time coming but all the components are finally coming together, potentially allowing Microsoft to introduce a new class of device that redefines the smartphone, tablet and PC simultaneously.
"The software and hardware innovations we have seen today position us all to continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible," said Microsoft. "Together, we can fulfil our mission to build technology that serves all of us, by ensuring there are devices for the creator in each of us."
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