Microsoft and Qualcomm to Create “Cellular PC” With Windows 10 on ARM

Qualcomm vs. Apple

By now, every Microsoft follower knows that the company’s plans for the mobile space no longer follow traditional lines. The fact that they look at mobility in an entirely different way from Apple or Google, coupled with the push to make Windows 10 a cross-device platform, logically leads to the conclusion that they want to create a smartphone-PC hybrid in the future – if they ever get into that space again.

The possibility of that future has now received what could be its strongest validation to date. Microsoft today announced that they will be launching Windows 10 devices that will run on ARM hardware, with compatibility with 32-bit Win32 applications. Windows itself will use the traditional 64-bit ARM code running natively, but apps with 32-bit binaries that are compatible with the emulation layer will also be supported.

The challenge for Microsoft, until now, was finding the right hardware partner to make this a reality. With Intel’s Atom Systems-on-Chip now axed and AMD shifting focus towards the server market, Microsoft has apparently decided that they can no longer depend on hardware vendors to make their own dreams come true.

As such, however, the Qualcomm partnership is now their only recourse if they ever want to start permanently erasing the thick line between mobile and desktop.

To make the x86 emulator work more effectively on these new cellular PC devices, it will only handle calls from the CPU. Other accesses such as GPU or storage will be handled by the native ARM. That means greater efficiency and faster performance. By using an emulator that only works with Qualcomm hardware, Microsoft is able to fine-tune the performance to a significant degree.

That said, the architecture possibly hasn’t evolved to the level that 3D gamers might want, for example. That’s not about to happen unless Qualcomm decides to start optimizing their drivers for x86 gaming. In fact, I would not be surprised if they decide to invest more in this partnership and optimize their hardware just to help Microsoft with its cellular PC agenda and cement their own position in this melting pot for desktop and mobile environments.

Potentially, such a partnership could weaken the decades-long marriage of Microsoft to Intel, but if Microsoft’s vision for mobility is something Nadella is serious about, then Qualcomm could end up being the concubine that Intel must simply tolerate.

For quite a few months now, we’ve been talking about a Surface Phone that’s right around the corner. That corner could be closer than we think. If this Microsoft-Qualcomm initiative can provide the kind of PC environment that Windows users have come to know and love – but on a mobile device connected to a much larger screen – then the company might truly create value for not only enterprise users, but anyone who needs that kind of seamless mobility with multiple devices.

Strangely enough, if you think about it, the concept of a cellular PC is the very same idea that the first smartphones were built on – to bring computing power to devices that can be carried around. Whether that was a simple PDA from the late 1990s or the first iPhone in 2007, the underlying intent has always been the same. Then, as time went by, smartphones became smarter and smarter, but that caused a divergence from traditional desktop OS architecture.

Who is to blame for that? Possibly Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android (and I’m tempted to include PalmOS as the real culprit) because they forced the hardware industry to pick between mobile and desktop environments, which forced software developers to focus on mobile versus web applications, which is what we’re faced with today.

Microsoft is trying to break that dichotomy. Will they be successful? They can, but it’s going to be an extremely difficult task for several reasons.

For one, they need the kind of user base acceptance that got iOS and Android to where they are now, and both OS environments together dominate the mobile space – a double-whammy for Microsoft.

Secondly, they are still dependent on third parties such as Qualcomm to provide the hardware that will carry the cellular PC idea forward. And even with this partnership they’re not completely there yet. Until mobile devices are fully integrated with desktop environments, it will still look and feel like patch-work.

Third, they now have Google approaching the problem from the other end with Andromeda, which is essentially an attempt to make Android apps run on desktop environments.

Microsoft is now faced not only with the challenge of breaking the iOS-Android duopoly, but is also running out of time. If Google’s Andromeda – essentially a “folding in” of Chrome OS into Android – can make its way through to production before Microsoft is able to come up with its own cross-device architecture – and popularize it – that’s another big roadblock in Microsoft’s path to true mobility.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is only too aware of this:

“We will keep looking at different forms and different functions that we can bring to mobile devices, while also supporting our software across a variety of devices. So that’s the approach you will see us take. We are not stepping away from supporting our Windows Phone users. But at the same time we are recognizing that there are other platforms in mobile that have higher share, and we want to make sure that our software is available to them.”

But do they have the luxury of time to “keep looking”? They’ve got the “recognizing that there are other platforms in mobile that have higher share” part of the equation, but have they arrived at a solution?

In our opinion, not yet. The Qualcomm-Microsoft announcement of the cellular PC concept could be the first step, but until Microsoft has full control over the hardware side of things, it’s going to be extremely difficult to crack iOS-Android dominance and pitch Windows 10 as a serious contender in the mobile space.

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