Windows for ARMs? A Game-Changing Union

Arthur Cole

Could it be that 2011 will be remembered as one of those pivotal years in IT history-like 2001 when the ESX Server was introduced or 1985 when Windows 1.0 finally shipped?

That's the kind of splash Microsoft would make if rumors about a forthcoming Windows version for the ARM processor prove true. According to Bloomberg, the system is slated for debut at next month's Consumer Electronics Show-a testament to the fact that the ARM would grant Windows-ready access to the army of tablets, netbooks and other mobile devices that are dominating both consumer and enterprise markets.

There's no question that Microsoft is becoming increasingly alarmed as Apple and Google continue to divvy up the mobile software market. Microsoft's major card is its dominance of enterprise markets, where its support for Intel's x86 platform has led to a comfortable dominance for more than two decades.

But that stability is threatened by two things: First, as I mentioned earlier this week, the trusty PC is quickly losing its dominance as the enterprise data access tool of choice; and secondly, the same ARM processors that run today's smartphone are also taking a bead on the enterprise server, where they can provide ample processing power using only a fraction of the energy of the x86.

An ARM version of Windows neatly taps into both trends. Not only will Microsoft gain a lucrative new mobile market, but ARM will find it easier to move into enterprise settings. Likewise, Apple and Google should also find the enterprise a more willing customer-a particular plumb for Google, which has been trying to draw business users for several years-but Microsoft knows that in order to gain ground, sometimes you have to give up a little.

The challenge for Microsoft, as's Kevin Tofel points out, is to devise a version of Windows that is stripped down enough for lightweight mobile environments but still provides an experience that is comparable to the desktop. More than likely, the company will deliver a cross between the Windows Phone 7 platform and Windows Embedded Compact.

The coming year is already set to be a watershed for cloud computing, so the prospect of a unified local, wide area and now mobile operating environment would mark a truly significant shift in enterprise data infrastructure. An ARM platform puts Windows at the center of this whirlwind.

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