Windows 10 on Qualcomm Snapdragon ARM Chips Unveiled During Microsoft WinHEC Talk

Microsoft announced a partnership with Qualcomm this week at its WinHEC event in Shenzhen, China.

The partnership will add Windows 10 support for ARM-based mobile devices that use Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors. WinHEC is Microsoft's hardware developer partner event.

China accounts for 140 Microsoft partners building more than 300 devices, explained Terry Myerson, executive vice president for Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, who gave the keynote talk (available on demand here). Myerson saved the Qualcomm news for last. Essentially, Windows 10 has been designed to run on Qualcomm's ARM-based Snapdragon processors. The four-core Snapdragon 820 processor was demonstrated during the WinHEC keynote. Myerson explained that the partnership aims to meet mobile user needs for having integrated cellular PC devices.

The operating system on display during the keynote talk wasn't Windows 10 Mobile on the Snapdragon processor. Instead, Microsoft has used emulation to run Windows 10 x86 Win32 applications on the devices. For instance, the Snapdragon device was capable of running hefty applications such as Adobe Photoshop and the full Office suite. It's also capable of displaying full HD video and using the Windows 10 inking capability. Myerson said that the Snapdragon device could use "all Windows 10 accessories," such as a stylus pen for inking.

Qualcomm's Executive Vice President Cristiano Amon took to the WinHEC stage to explain that the Snapdragon 800 Series processor can get gigabit speeds when connecting and via Wi-Fi (with support for 5G). The partnership will open new form factors for Windows 10 devices and Qualcomm has built a 14-nm Snapdragon processor for mobile phones running Windows 10.

The new devices running Windows 10 on Snapdragon processors are expected to be available sometime in 2017.

ARM Support Round 2
The Qualcomm announcement is noteworthy because Microsoft's early commercial production of PC-tablet devices running ARM processors, namely its first Surface RT devices running the Windows RT operating system, didn't have the ability to run "legacy" Win32 applications. These devices could only run so-called "modern" (also known as "Metro") applications. Microsoft ended up quietly killing off its Windows RT-based Surface product line and took a $900 million write-down on producing those devices, possibly because of those Windows RT limitations. The x86-based Surface product line, though, continues on today in production.

Surface RT devices also could not be domain joined like typical PCs. Myerson specifically showed during the WinHEC demo that the Qualcomm-based device running Windows 10 was capable of being domain joined.

Apparently, Microsoft has solved some of the limitations of that early Windows RT approach by emulating the x86 Win32 environment with the Snapdragon ARM-based processor, allowing older Windows apps to run on the device and permitting domain joins.

Wes Miller, an analyst with the Directions on Microsoft independent consultancy explained in a blog post that "emulation" isn't the same "virtualization." He speculated that Microsoft may have stacked ARM A64 chip support and x86 chip support into Windows 10 to support different application types. That approach poses storage-space issues for mobile devices, though. Possibly, the reason why the Snapdragon processor also doesn't support x86 64-bit applications may be because of potential operating system bloat, he added.

Microsoft's approach with the Qualcomm partnership will aid Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform (UWP) approach, Miller argued, since mobile devices will be capable of running Win32 applications and developers will be motivated to support touch and other capabilities enabled by UWP. One of Microsoft's concepts with the UWP was to make it easier for developers to port older Win32 applications to the modern app experience.

Miller debunked in advance the idea that Windows Mobile is now dead with this Qualcomm development. He explained that Windows Mobile isn't using the "layer" that supports A64 and x86. He also poured cold water on the idea that the deal signals some shift in Microsoft's close partnership with Intel, noting that the Qualcomm-based device has "no x64 support" and its performance likely will be adequate for "consumers and low-mid tier knowledge workers."

Project Evo and Intel
Onstage during the WinHEC event, Myerson announced Project Evo, a new partnership effort with Intel that involves joint efforts on artificial intelligence and Cortana support, speech integration, biometrics improvements (Windows Hello), and gaming support for 4K and high dynamic range video. The project also adds support for "mixed reality," which is Microsoft's newest phrase, apparently replacing its earlier "augmented reality" phrase. Quite a lot of the WinHEC presentations featured the use of head-mounted display devices that can combine a room's visual space with added two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects for interaction by the user.

Microsoft's own HoloLens device will be capable of displaying mixed reality without placing cameras within a room's space, it was noted during the talk. Microsoft calls this approach "inside-out tracking."

HoloLens is up for regulatory approval in China. Possibly, it' be available commercially in that market sometime in the first half of 2017. Microsoft is planning to make head-mounted display developer kits for HoloLens available at the "Game Developers Conference in San Francisco," which commences on Feb. 27, 2017, per Microsoft's announcement.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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