Microsoft said Wednesday that the next version of its Windows PC operating system will run on ARM processors as part of an effort to adapt Windows to the fast-growing market for tablet computers, where Apple and Google have gained traction.
It's a big move for Microsoft, whose desktop OS has traditionally run only on x86-type processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Chips based on ARM designs use much less power and are dominant in smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone and in tablets like the Apple iPad.
Microsoft executives made the announcement during a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where tablet computers are the hot topic. CEO Steve Ballmer is expected to talk further about the effort in his keynote address that opens the show Wednesday evening.
The move brings Microsoft's operating system into the era of "system on chip" processors such as the ARM parts, said Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live Division.
A few vendors have launched tablets based on Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system but they have failed to catch the imagination of buyers. Part of the issue is that the x86-type processors draw too much power and limit battery life, but analysts say Microsoft's operating system is also part of the problem.
"Windows 7 is not an OS that was designed for tablets," Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said in an interview earlier this week. It does offer some touch-screen capabilities but the interface was not designed primarily with touch in mind.
Nor does Microsoft have fully cloud-based versions of its Office applications, she said. Apple and Android tablets tend to be used for browser-based applications like YouTube and Google Docs rather than locally installed software.
On Wednesday Microsoft gave what it called a "technology demonstration" of Windows on ARM, meaning the software is not fully developed and the company is not ready to show the user interface or provide pricing and packaging information, or even a ship date. It was intended to be an engineering demonstration, Sinofsky said.
Sinofsky didn't say what the next version of Windows would be called. Published reports citing unnamed sources have suggested it would be Windows 8, which is not expected for about two years.
System requirements for mobile devices have been doubling each year, to a point where the requirements are converging with those of PCs, he said. The latest mobile devices require a 1Ghz processor, 512MB RAM and a graphics processing unit. Meanwhile, requirements for a desktop OS have leveled out.
"It's interesting how they've all started to converge on the same baseline hardware requirements," he said.
For sure, Microsoft will continue to develop Intel-based versions of its software for desktop and laptop PCs, which continues to be a highly profitable area for the company. But analysts see tablets and other lightweight, portable computers taking an increasing share of the market.
Forrester predicted this week that one-third of online consumers in the U.S., or about 82 million people, will own some form of tablet computer by 2015. It expects 44 million tablets to be sold that year, up from 10.3 million last year.
Forrester expects Apple to retain "a majority stake" in the tablet market through 2015, Rotman Epps said.