What can Microsoft do with ARM chips?

Posted by Aharon Etengoff

No one knows for certain what Microsoft plans on doing with its recently acquired ARM architectural license. However, there are a number of likely possibilities, including a new generation of processors designed for smartphones, tablets and even game consoles.

As expected, both ARM and Microsoft have remained rather tight-lipped over the lucrative deal.

What can Microsoft do with ARM chips?Indeed, ARM spokesperson Antonio Viana told TG Daily that he viewed the agreement as an affirmation, or "extension" of the robust 14-year relationship between the two companies.

"Microsoft currently supports several operating systems based on ARM architecture. This licensing agreement will undoubtedly enhance development activities for ARM based products.

"Now, for ARM this is all very exciting because it underscores our momentum. It really speaks volumes about our position in the marketplace. So, we're pretty excited on the ARM side, as this is definitely a validation of our business model."

Unsurprisingly, the lack of a public Microsoft-ARM roadmap has led many analysts, journalists and bloggers to speculate about Microsoft's intentions. 

For example, Sarah Friar, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, told Bloomberg the deal could allow MS to challenge Apple's wildly popular iPad with a new lineup of ARM-powered tablets.

Apple iPad"Apple's iPad is doing well in part because it turns on instantly and has a long battery life," opined Friar.

"Microsoft can more easily match that with an ARM chip than an Intel one."

Meanwhile, ZDNet's Mary-Jo Foley hypothesized that the license could theoretically be be used to port the Windows OS from its current x86 base to an ARM platform.

"While Windows Embedded runs on ARM, so far, the full Windows operating system has not been available on ARM processors," wrote Folely.

Microsoft Windows 7"But [of course] there's another possibility: What if the new agreement with ARM involves Windows Phone OS running on tablets, slates and netbooks [powered by] the ARM chip?"

Analyst Rob Enderle expressed similar sentiments.

"I think this is more a response to Apple going in a similar direction and the trend to want to control and assure more of the [mobile and] smartphone platform," he told TG Daily in an e-mailed statement.

"But it may also have to do with the fact that Intel really didn't want to support Microsoft's low cost processor data center project with Atom." 

Nathan Brookwood, the principal analyst at Insight 64, also highlighted the Cupertino-based Apple as an example of what Microsoft could potentially achieve with an indigenous ARM-based chip design. 

Apple iPhone 4"If you look at what Apple did with (its) A4 (chip), they were more or less able to craft their own system-on-a-chip using the ARM Cortex core with their own choice of graphics and so forth," Brookwood explained during an interview with CNET.

"That makes a lot of sense, and when you're going to sell tens of millions of something, as they're obviously doing with iPhones and iPads, you have the volume to justify that kind of R&D effort."

Finally, Linley Gwennap of the Linley Group, suggested that Microsoft may plan on indigenously designing a chip for its next-gen Xbox console.

"You don't [sign] an architecture license, unless you're going to design a [processor]. The one place now where they're developing their own [chip] is Xbox. So, [yes], it's possible that [Microsoft is] going to use this license to develop a next-generation Xbox processor."



It should be noted that ARM spokesperson Ian Smythe previously told TG Daily there wasn't any reason why the company's Mali GPU "shouldn't be" in a gaming console "at some point."

"Something like that would definitely be a good ambition for us to have in terms of hardware scalable up to those levels," said Smythe.

"Really, it is all about scalability for ARM. Of course, we wouldn't leave existing markets, but the goal would be successfully scale across multiple and diverse spaces simultaneously."