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The Next Windows: ARM Support and More Surprises in Windows 8

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 5/25/2011

It wasn't long ago that Windows 7 hit retail, but Microsoft is already making plans for its next operating system, tentatively known as Windows 8. Surprisingly, Microsoft is making plans for Windows 8 to be available on more than just x86 compatible processors.

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    Onward and Upward

    Although Windows Vista was a miss for Microsoft, Windows 7 has been much more successful. The reviews of the operating system have been very positive, and users seem to have more love than hate for the new OS. Overall, the launch of the latest Windows operating system has ben a great success for Redmond.

    However, Microsoft (perhaps learning from earlier mistakes) isn't happy to sit with Windows 7. They're already making plans about what they'd like to deliver with Windows 8, and these plans include a big surprise.

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    Windows 8 for ARM

    Windows 8 ARM Support Since its introduction in 1985, Windows has been focused on computers running x86 processors. This makes sense, as x86 compatible processors made by Intel and a few other companies, such as AMD, have been the dominant force in consumer and business computers for decades. Although alternatives occasionally came and went, none ever seemed a convincing competitor to x86, largely due to the tenacity of Intel.

    However, the rise of smartphones, tablets and other mobile computing devices has begun to upset the market. Smartphone now have capabilities similar to computers, but Microsoft doesn't have much presence in this market. The same goes for tablet computers. And while Microsoft does dominate the netbook market, it does so without much grace - the company has reason to be concerned that an ARM compatible OS could eventually crowd into that space.

    Windows 8, however, will support ARM processors. This major announcement came at CES 2011, the same show at which Nvidia announced that it is developing an ARM compatible processor that is meant to be competitive with current x86 desktop processors. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in any case, this could prove a major turning point in the consumer PC market.

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    The Reasons for ARM Support

    As explained in our ARM vs x86 article, ARM is different from x86 in that it can be easily licensed. Intel is only willing to sell the end product - a fully x86 processor with chipset. The company jealously guards the actual x86 license and only allows companies like AMD to continue production because of pre-existing contracts.

    This is the reason why ARM has been dominate in smartphones and tablets. Intel will not license x86 out to other companies, and Intel itself doesn't make any processors that are capable of fitting into the slim wattage envelopes that portable devices require. ARM, however, simply sells the license to whoever wants to make a processor. The licensee can then make a small, power-efficient device that meets their specific requirements.

    Since Windows has only focused on x86 compatibility, it had no chance of getting into that market unless it developed its own specific opearting system. That's exactly what Microsoft tried to do when it introduced Windows Mobile, but the company has been fighting an uphill battle against iOS and Android that it shows no signs of winning (Despite WP7 being a huge improvement and quite competitive, the amount of ground to make up is huge. -Ed).

    By bringing over Windows proper, Microsoft can draw upon a more mature operating environment. It's also likely that Microsoft wants to prepare for the possibility that ARM processors could start to make strikes into the traditional consumer PC market.

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    What Else We Know

    ARM support from Windows is a big deal. It gives ARM the opportunity to compete in a space traditionally dominated by Intel. In the long run, it could break Intel's near-monopoly on the consumer processor market and introduce dramatically more competition into the space.

    But ARM support for Windows 8 is also a big deal for another reason - it's just about all we know about Windows 8 at this time. There are other rumors floating around; that it will add more 3D elements to the interface, that it will allow more than one user to log in at a time for collaborative use, or that it will offer integrated cloud support. All of these rumors are possible. But they're unconfirmed. Microsoft has been particularly tight-lipped about what the company's newest operating system will look like. We don't even know if it will be a refinement of the current OS, like Windows 7, or if it will be a complete overhaul like Windows Vista.

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    Release Dates

    Windows 8 Dell Tablet Although we don't know much of anything about the features that will be introduced in Windows 8, we do know - courtesy of a leaked roadmap - that Windows 8 appears to be moving along its development cycle at a blistering pace. According to the leak, Windows "Milestone 2" should be completed by the end of February 2011, with Milestone 3 slated to start thereafter. A beta build of Windows 8 should become available at the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference in May.

    If you think those rumors sound a bit wild, I agree. This would be a quick development cycle, although not necessarily much quicker than that of Windows 7 (the difference being that Windows 7 was developed quickly to replace the much-maligned Vista). However, the rumors are given some support from the fact that a separate leak from Dell indicates that the company expects to have a Windows 8 tablet on the market as early as the first quarter of 2012.

    Of course, the fact that Microsoft or Dell expects something to be available within a certain time frame doesn't mean it actually will become available when expected. Projects like this are frequently subject to delays. There is also some speculation that Microsoft may be launching an ARM compatible version of Windows 8 focusing on tablets first, after which it will release a desktop variant.

    Ultimately, only time will tell - but it appears we may not wait as long for Windows 8 as we thought.