Future Windows 10 phones could run full-fledged PC programs

ARM and x86: the holy grail?

When the HP Elite x3 launched earlier this year, we lamented its likely legacy as the last great Windows 10 phone. It stood alone as the embodiment of Microsoft’s PC-as-phone vision at a time when Microsoft was ruthlessly burning its mobile hardware division to the ground and gutting what few Nokia remnants lingered. But now it appears that the HP Elite x3’s highlight feature—the ability to run PC software on a phone—may actually find its way into Windows 10 Mobile’s core at some point in the future.

Frequent Windows sleuth WalkingCat dredged up hints of Windows 10's ability to emulate x86 (read: PC) software on ARM (read: mobile) processors, via a “CHPE” designation in code.

walkingcat chpe

Mary Jo Foley, a Windows reporter with impeccable sources, followed up on the report today. Foley says “CHPE” indeed refers to Microsoft plans to introduce x86 emulation to Windows 10 in a “Redstone 3” update in fall 2017. The “C” stands for “Cobalt,” Microsoft’s code name for x86 emulation, according to her sources; “HP” literally stands for the company HP; and “E” remains unclear, but potentially stands for “emulation.”

So why does this matter? Because native x86 software support would dramatically improve the utility of Continuum, Windows 10 Mobile’s flagship feature. Continuum allows you to use your Windows phone like a PC when you connect it to an external display and keyboard—but right now, the only software that works in Continuum mode are Universal Windows Platform apps, which are limited in number and don’t include many key programs demanded by business users and hardcore PC enthusiasts.

Even the Elite x3 runs its x86 PC apps in a virtualized cloud environment, rather than on-device.

The idea of emulating full-fledged PC programs on mobile devices sounds challenging, especially since much of the software that pros rely on tends to be resource-hungry. Avoiding performance or battery-life penalties could prove difficult. But working x86 apps mixed with ARM’s legendary power efficiency could be a computing holy grail if Microsoft manages to pull it off.

The story behind the story: “Technically, there are really two things that are unique about Windows Mobile,” Window chief Terry Myerson said in an interview with ZDNet late October. “One is cellular connectivity and the other one is the ARM processors that are there. So we’re going to continue to invest in ARM and cellular. And while I’m not saying what type of device, I think we’ll see devices there, Windows devices, that use ARM chips. I think we’ll see devices that have cellular connectivity.”

So sure, this x86 emulation tidbit—if true—keeps the dream of the fabled Surface Phone alive. But reading between Myerson’s words, Windows 10 Mobile’s future may not even necessarily include phones.

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Brad Chacos

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