Windows 10 and real desktop apps on Qualcomm: Windows takes another step into the mobile world.

This fixes all the problems from the last time Microsoft tried Windows on ARM, but the interesting part is thinking of it as another new “mobile” feature in Windows.

A few weeks ago at the Windows Hardware Engineering Community event in Shenzhen, China, we learned that Microsoft plans to enable full Windows 10 PCs to run on Qualcomm Snapdragon ARM processors, with support for regular x86 Win32 desktop apps.

This announcement caught my attention because we talked about Windows on ARM (WOA) and the Surface RT a lot back in 2012-2013, and I happen to be testing an HP Elite X3 (a Windows 10 phone) right now. (We have a thing for pondering potential alternative enterprise devices.)

More importantly, however, it’s just the latest in a series of changes by Microsoft to make Windows 10 more “mobile.”

The facts

Here’s what we actually know so far, from Terry Myerson’s blog post, the WinHEC keynote, and Mary Jo Foley's coverage. (By the way, I’m just going to call this concept “WOA 2.0” for now.)

  • The full desktop version of Windows 10 will be compiled to run natively on Qualcomm Snapdragon ARM processors.
  • The overall idea is to create more power-efficient mobile PCs with screens starting at 6 inches.
  • Regular unmodified x86 Win32 apps will be supported via an emulation layer.
  • WOA 2.0 devices will support all of the features you’d expect on a traditional PC: They can join a domain, connect to peripherals, and support multi-touch and Windows Ink.
  • WOA 2.0 will arrive sometime in 2017 (likely in the fall with Redstone 3, according to Mary Jo Foley) but no specific device models or even OEM partners have been announced yet. The demo was done on an engineering device built by Qualcomm.

WOA 2.0 fixes flaws of the last attempt

Let’s take a look at WOA 2.0 first from the enterprise perspective.

The last time Microsoft attempted Windows on ARM (in 2012 with the Surface RT) it was a spectacular failure. One of the general problems was that there weren’t many Windows Store apps (a.k.a. Metro, TileWorld, .appx, or Modern apps), so it wasn’t very useful as a tablet. Since WOA didn’t run traditional x86 desktop apps, it wasn’t very useful for enterprise apps, either. It couldn’t be domain-joined and there was no MDM for it, so it wasn’t very manageable. The final nail in the coffin was that it was simply half-baked and confusing.

But this time around, WOA 2.0 will run normal desktop apps, it will support multiple management options, and Microsoft has been refining the 2-in-1 (touchscreen apps mixed with desktop apps) experience for four years. So this is great news for WOA, as almost all of the fundamental flaws will be fixed.

More power-efficient hardware options

From the outside perspective, WOA 2.0 devices should just be like any other Windows 10 PC, tablet, 2-in-1, laptop, or what have you. (One minor difference is that they won’t run 64-bit desktop apps, but arguably that that’s not a big deal.)

The important difference is that since WOA 2.0 devices will have ARM processors, they should be more power-efficient, and thus thinner, lighter, fanless, more powerful, or whatever else the OEMs decide to optimize for. This is especially good news for OEMs that want to make a devices shaped like the iPad Pro.

One question is how this will work out in practice, since you would assuming that running the x86 Win32 emulation layer has to add a lot of overhead. On the other hand, we’ve had four more years of power efficiency gains, and hopefully we can assume that Microsoft and Qualcomm wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t confident about the performance. Either way, we’ll find out for sure when the devices come out.

WOA 2.0 could also make Continuum on Windows phones way better. If you’re not familiar, the Continuum feature allows phones running Windows 10 Mobile to function as a desktop by docking to a keyboard, mouse, and display. Unfortunately it currently has some of the same flaws as the old WOA in that it doesn’t behave like a full desktop version of Windows. Microsoft and Qualcomm didn’t explicitly say WOA 2.0 will work on phones yet, but they very strongly implied that it’s coming in the WinHEC keynote and in comments to Mary Jo Foley. (I’ll talk about Windows 10 Mobile and Continuum in depth when I publish my review of the HP Elite X3.)

Enter the smartphone hardware ecosystem

Now let’s look at a different angle: the OEMs.

The interesting thing about running Windows 10 on Qualcomm/ARM, as Qualcomm EVP Cristiano Amon pointed out, is that it opens the door to Windows 10 devices made by a whole new group of OEMs. Instead of just PC OEMs, Microsoft can tap the entire smartphone ecosystem. (Remember, WOA 2.0 was introduced in Shenzhen.)

The smartphone ecosystem is huge compared to the PC ecosystem, by about a whole order of magnitude. (Andreessen-Horowitz analyst Benedict Evans has put out some excellent blog posts on this; see here). The massive scale, a new component supply chain, new OEMs, and even a new set of design assumptions could lead to a wave of compelling Windows 10 devices, and really be a breath of fresh air for the Windows PC.

Windows as a mobile device

In moving over to a different and much more massive supply chain and set of OEMs, Windows 10 is becoming more like a mobile device. Sound familiar? I’ve been writing about how Windows 10 is becoming more mobile for well over a year now. To clarify, when I say “mobile,” I don’t mean just portable touchscreen phones and tablets that run iOS and Android. Instead, “mobile” now means a new set of attributes:

  • Lots of built in security features: Check. See Device Guard, Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection, Windows Hello, and so on. (Though some of these things will have to be implemented differently on ARM than on x86.)
  • Support for MDM-style provisioning and management: Check.
  • More “personal” devices, including support for BYOD and keeping work and personal data separate: Check. See Windows Information Protection.
  • Modern sandboxed apps that come from an app store: Check. See the Windows Store and Universal Windows Platform apps.

Now add to that list using ARM and the massive ecosystem of smartphone components and OEMs.

There are other new things Microsoft is thinking about, too, like VR, gaming, and seamless cellular connectivity. (I really want this, by the way—Windows 10 will support a new type of embedded SIM card and you’ll be able to buy data any time you want through the Windows Store.)

What doesn’t fit?

Even with WOA 2.0, there’s one major thing that’s different about the way Windows is doing mobile: The Windows Store and Universal Windows Platform app offerings are fairly weak (aside from Microsoft’s own apps). To compensate, Microsoft is offering support for x86 Win32 apps. This brings up many interesting questions, but I’ll save those for a future article. For now, let’s just think about all the new hardware options that will come with WOA 2.0.

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