On the eve of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Microsoft confirmed its long-rumored plans to port the next version of Windows, currently known as Windows 8, to ARM chipsets, in addition to those based on the Intel x86 architecture. And yes, the port is happening in part to power a new generation of iPad-like slate devices, but Microsoft says that it has plans far beyond that, since these "system on a chip" systems are so small that they can fit on a fingernail.
"We're showing the flexibility and resiliency of Windows through the power of software and a commitment to world-class engineering," said Microsoft President Steven Sinofsky, who was on hand in Las Vegas for the announcement. "We continue to evolve Windows to deliver the functionality customers demand across the widest variety of hardware platforms and form factors."
This commitment to Windows may be controversial in some circles—many would like to see the company port its Windows Phone OS to tablets, for example—but Microsoft says this is key to its future success. Windows already has a thriving ecosystem around it, and by expanding the range of devices on which the system runs, it can take an already popular product and open it up to new markets.
The key to this expansion is these so-called "system on a chip" architectures, which include ARM-based designs by NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments, as well as traditional x86-based designs from Intel and AMD. By expanding Windows to these tiny and power-efficient systems, Microsoft can deliver an OS that is rich and powerful, compatible with today's applications, and yet achieves all-day battery life. And the variety of device types that are possible with system on a chip is far greater than with traditional PC motherboards and chipsets.
According to Sinofksy, the system requirements for Windows 8 will actually double since Windows 7, but he downplayed the potential problem by reminding us that Windows 7 actually arrived with lower hardware requirements than its predecessor. And since Windows 8 won't ship until mid-2012, the available hardware will be more impressive, as well.
As was also expected, Microsoft didn't show off the Windows 8 UI, which is expected to ship in a new "dual" mode with different UIs for devices and full-powered PCs. Instead, Wednesday's demo was described as a technology preview only, similar to the May 2008 preview of the multi-touch technologies in Windows 7.