Newly announced Windows on ARM PCs will support legacy Win32 apps

Laurent Giret

Microsoft just wrapped up its WinHEC 2016 keynote a few hours ago, and the hour long event packed several exciting news for the Windows enthusiasts out there, especially the Windows 10 on ARM announcement. Here is what Terry Myerson, Microsoft Executive Vice President, Windows and Devices Group shared in a blog post on the Windows blog ealier today:

Hardware partners will be able to build a range of new Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered Windows 10 PCs that run x86 Win32 and universal Windows apps, including Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office and popular Windows games.

We’ll try to analyse what Windows 10 on ARM means for the future of Windows 10 devices below.

What are the differences with Windows 10 Mobile?

First of all, it’s worth noting that while Windows 10 runs on x86 chips from Intel or AMD, Microsoft already has an operating system running on ARM chips, which is called Windows 10 Mobile. The x86 architecture is necessary to run legacy Win32 apps such as the desktop Office apps, Adobe Photoshop and more, but Microsoft has been trying to move away from these legacy apps with Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform over the last two years. Still, the company is aware that support for Win32 apps remains critical as developers have yet to fully embrace the Windows Store and Microsoft’s UWP platform.

As of today, Windows 10 Mobile is a 32-bit mobile OS (even on handsets featuring 64-bits ARM chips from Qualcomm such as the Lumia 950, 950XL and HP Elite x3) that can only run Windows Store apps. On premium handsets that support Continuum, it’s possible to emulate a lightweight desktop experience by connecting a Windows 10 Mobile phone to a keyboard, mouse and screen, though Continuum only support full screen UWP apps for now, which is not great for multitasking.

Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile

Some manufacturers like HP have been trying to turbocharge Continuum by bringing support for select legacy Win32 apps: that’s the purpose of HP Workspace, a premium subscription service targeted at business users which allow them to run virtualized legacy Windows apps on the HP Elite x3, but the service is not cheap and has some limitations including a maximum 80 hours of monthly usage. Additionally, the performance of virtualized apps is dependent on your bandwidth, so it’s not great in all kinds of setups.

What are the differences with Windows RT?

Back in 2012, Microsoft launched its first portfolio of Surface tablets with the Surface RT and the Surface Pro. The first one featured an NVIDIA Tegra 3 ARM chip and ran Windows RT, Microsoft’s first try at making Windows running on ARM chips. Unfortunately for the company,the result was poorly received, to say the least.

Indeed, Windows RT struggled to get support from third-party manufacturers, and the OS was quite confusing for consumers: it had a classic desktop mode and some legacy apps such as Internet Explorer and the Office suite had been ported on ARM, but users could not install other Win32 apps. This compromise made Windows RT devices very hard products to market for both Microsoft and its OEM partners, and Windows RT has now been killed off by Microsoft.

The Surface RT.

But Windows 10 on ARM will be a different beast, as it will support all Win32 apps through emulation without needing users to do anything. During its keynote, Microsoft demoed Windows 10 Enterprise 64 bit running on machine with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, and it just the same Windows 10 you already know and use on your PC with an x86 processor: Windows 10 on ARM will have full support for touch, inking, USB accessories, Windows Store apps and Win32 apps such as Word and Adobe Photoshop

The new OS seems to work great on this machine featuring a four-cores Snapdragon 820 and 4 gigs of RAM, but it remains to be seen if this new emulation technology built into Windows 10 on ARM can really deliver good performance with more demanding x86 apps. Moreover, Microsoft demoed the Windows Store game World of Tanks: Blitz in the video, but it would be interesting to see how Win32 games would perform on a Windows 10 machine with a Snapdragon 820 processor.

What does that mean for the future of Windows 10 devices?

As Terry Myerson explained, Windows 10 on ARM will allow OEMs to bring a new range of devices with innovative form factors and “always-on” capabilities. “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,” he explained.

ARM chips from Qualcomm, Samsung and Apple are improving so fast that Intel stopped developing its mobile Atom chips codenamed “Sofia” and “Broxton,” earlier this year. More importantly, ARM chips are cheaper than the x86 chips from Intel and AMD, they also run cooler and are more battery efficient, enabling thinner and fanless designs. Moreover, they also directly integrate wireless technologies including cellular connectivity, an option that is rarely found on laptops today.

The Surface 3 is Microsoft’s last Windows device that had a cellular connectivity option.

Looking at the competition, Google pretty much paved the way with its Chromebooks, as its Chrome OS operating system runs on both x86 and ARM architectures. Today, Chromebooks are very cheap laptops and give some serious competition to Microsoft on the low-end of the market. Microsoft previously criticized Chromebooks and Chrome OS as a glorified web browser, but Google is currently working to bring support for Android apps on Chrome OS, so the threat is real for Microsoft. For now, the Redmond giant has yet to share details about the first wave of devices running Windows 10 on ARM that will be released “next year,” though we expect them to be affordable computers that will better compete with Chromebooks. As for power users, they will likely continue to purchase more powerful machines featuring Intel’s Core processors.

What does that mean for Windows 10 Mobile and the rumored Surface Phone?

That’s still difficult to answer, as Microsoft did not mention anything about Windows 10 Mobile during its keynote. However, the fact that Microsoft successfully built a new x86 emulation technology directly on Windows 10 on ARM could be very good news for Windows 10 Mobile in the long run. Could Microsoft bring this emulation technology to Windows 10 Mobile’s Continuum mode, allowing consumers to finally use the legacy Win32 apps they want on their phone connected to an external screen? That certainly could be one of the rumored Surface Phone’s killer features.

But does it still makes sense for Microsoft to continue to support Windows 10 Mobile if Windows 10 now also runs on ARM chips? Well, Windows 10 doesn’t have a phone stack and a UI optimized for phones as of today, so Windows 10 Mobile still has a value for now. But maybe in a couple of years, Microsoft may well just have one version of Windows 10 that supports all form factors and architectures.