Last December, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group Terry Myerson made a series of surprising on-stage announcements about the future of Windows at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Shenzhen, China. Among them:

  1. The Redmond giant had partnered with Qualcomm to build a full version of Windows that runs natively on the ARM architecture–based Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which is used to power mobile devices.
  2. Microsoft will be releasing devices with this new version of beginning in late 2017.
  3. Then, the biggest surprise: Myerson demonstrated live that traditional 32-bit x86 applications could run at seemingly native speeds in emulation within this ARM based Windows OS. Even Adobe Photoshop and graphics-intensive games appeared to work fine, with no obvious lag.

A mobile device that can run Windows desktop applications might sound like a product mostly relevant to the consumer phone and tablet markets. However, Terry Myerson made a point to reveal an aspect of the device with clear enterprise implications: the operating system he demoed was running Windows 10 Enterprise. This new device could be domain-joined, he confirmed.

Windows 10 Enterprise running on an ARM processor

Windows 10 Enterprise running on an ARM processor

In today’s bring-your-own-device (BYOD) world, what are the possible enterprise benefits of a domain-joined, mobile-chip-powered device that can run traditional Windows desktop applications? The most obvious advantage might first seem to be that companies could finally provide employees with tablets and phones that could be managed centrally through Group Policy. But why would companies today even need to buy such devices if employees are already bringing their own devices to work? In the 10 long years since the smartphone revolution began, IT has evolved to allow employees access to the data they need through their private phones and tablets securely, without allowing those devices direct access to the network. Buying those devices for them now would be an unneeded expense.

Lower-Cost Desktop Replacements

Another possible answer is that these devices will not primarily take the form of tablets or phones, despite the fact that they run on ARM chips. Instead, they could appear mainly in the form of laptops. These mobile-chipped computers would allow companies to save money by replacing current versions with lower-cost, more power-efficient devices that preserve compatibility with desktop applications and manageability through Group Policy.

There is some evidence to support this theory. The ARM processor device running a Windows operating system that Myerson used on stage was built by Qualcomm for Microsoft, and curiously, it took the form factor of a laptop computer, not a phone or a tablet. Microsoft could have asked Qualcomm to build the device in whichever form factor Microsoft preferred, so the fact that Microsoft wanted to demonstrate this capability with a laptop gives a strong hint at what the company is planning for this new operating system.

There’s also the possibility—more remote, admittedly—that Microsoft foresees that some enterprises will replace their client computers with portable, phone-like devices that can quickly dock into a keyboard, mouse, and monitor when needed. Though this “phone + PC” option is compelling for the consumer market, in the enterprise market, the cost of such a device and docking station would probably be no cheaper than the client computers they would replace.

Laptops with Telephony

Finally, there’s the feature of integrated telephony, which Myerson was keen to emphasize. Windows devices based on the Snapdragon processor will include built-in support for mobile connectivity and e-SIM cards. (E-SIM allows users to choose and switch mobile network providers easily, without needing a physical SIM card.) If the growth of mobile networks continues, and their prices keep dropping, they might eventually overtake Wi-Fi as the most common gateway to the Internet on client computers. And in that case, shouldn’t the laptop of the future include support for mobile connectivity built into its platform? In an enterprise environment, by extension, support for telephony and mobile networks should naturally be both configurable and manageable through Group Policy.

Will Android Apps Run on Windows on ARM?

A question that remains is whether the improved battery life and integrated telephony offered by a laptop running Windows on ARM are truly enough to justify the need for such a device, even if it can be domain-joined. Yes, 32-bit x86 applications will run on it at near-native speeds, but 64-bit x86 applications will not. And with so few Windows mobile applications currently available, why would Microsoft try again (after the disappointing Windows RT and Windows Mobile episodes) to launch a Windows on ARM ecosystem when developers haven’t yet shown much interest in it?

This question is especially puzzling with Microsoft under the leadership of Satya Nadella, who is re-envisioning the company not as the isolated planet of old, but as an open and integrated player in a technically diverse world. (Microsoft has even just made Linux available for download in the Windows store.). If Microsoft is now willing to support other platforms, why wouldn’t the company support Android through a hypervisor or subsystem on Windows on ARM, allowing users to install approved Android apps? If Microsoft under Nadella has refrained from offering “me-too” products, what less than the novelty of a versatile Android plus Windows device could truly excite both home consumers and business customers and entice them to join the new mobile platform with the Windows operating system on ARM architecture?

Stay Tuned

Though many questions remain about Microsoft’s vision for the Windows operating system on ARM architecture and its place in the enterprise, chances are that we will not have to wait long for more clues. Tuesday, May 23, Microsoft is expected to reveal a new Microsoft Surface device at an event in Shanghai, China. It seems likely that Windows on ARM will make an appearance too.

(Update: At the event, Microsoft made no explicit mention of a Windows on ARM device, but they did tease an upcoming Surface device with LTE support.)

For more information about how x86 emulation works on the Windows operating system on ARM architecture platform, watch this video. For updates about Microsoft’s enterprise vision for Windows on ARM devices, keep an eye on this blog.

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