The pending release of the new Windows platforms marks the most ambitious release in the history of Microsoft. In a very short period, Microsoft will be updating multiple platforms for everything from smartphones to PCs with multiple versions of the Windows operating system (OS).
While all the new Windows OSs share the same user interface and programming model, formerly known as Metro, they are still very different in terms of the platforms and SoCs supported. Microsoft will offer the traditional Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro for X86-based consumer and business PCs and productivity tablets; Windows Phone for ARM-based smartphones; and Windows RT for ARM-based tablets and other devices that could arguably be called PCs, including Microsoft’s own Surface PC.
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Currently, the excitement and momentum is around the traditional Windows 8 platform. Many view Windows 8 as a major inflection point for PCs, much like Windows 95, that will invigorate PC platforms that have thus far struggled, mainly ultrabooks and tablets. As a result, many are overlooking the introduction of Windows RT and the true significance it represents to the technology industry.
Even Microsoft has limited the promotion of Windows RT not only itself, but also by its partners. This may be a conservative approach to what could be a major disruptor to the computing ecosystem or it could be due to other concerns. In any case, there are still five reasons to take note of Windows RT and the tablet and computing platforms that will emerge.
First and foremost, Windows RT represents a new day in computing where the consumer can once again choose from multiple architectures by selecting the desired power, performance, features, and price rather than the processor. The importance of the processor selection has diminished in recent years as computing applications have moved to other platforms, such as smartphones and tablets, and the performance of processors (or SoCs as they are more appropriately called) have exceeded the performance requirements of most users and applications.
Second, supporting the ARM ecosystem will invite more competition from a large and aggressive ecosystem. This could mark the end of the X86 duopoly in PCs and create a new playing field open to a couple of new players (NVIDIA and Qualcomm) today and even more vendors in the future. Many have argued that the lack of legacy PC application support will limit the potential for RT, but Microsoft is diligently working with the software community to port the most valuable applications to Windows RT by the launch date. Even if some applications are not available, it is likely that they will be ported within a short period of time. It is also important to note that these same software companies are also working to port their applications to the new Windows 8 platform as well.
Third, with support for lower-cost platforms based on the ARM architecture, Windows RT should create a new level of competition represented by more aggressive pricing on both new and existing platforms. With ultrabooks currently priced in the $750 to $1000 range, there is plenty of room for lower pricing, possibly even competing with the pricing of value notebooks. And in tablets, many premium ARM-based tablets are already priced well below X86 tablets. Of course the license fees charged by Microsoft for both the OS and the Microsoft Office suite will be a significant factor in the overall platform pricing.
Intel's poor lack of SOC focus pushed M-soft to also move its software to Arm with Windows RT including Office. Yes, plus Apple and Samsung (and likely soon M-soft) can now design their own Arm SOCs chips and this completely changes the business model in semiconductors. It did not have to play out like this. A friend of mine recently left Intel. He said the silicon process technology team at Intel has unbelievable focus with methodologies like "Copy Exactly" but the team also lacks vision and understanding of the designer needs for the mobile SOC market (like value of FDSOI vs finfet). He did not think workable for Intel to integrate LTE baseband with Atom on SOC until perhaps 2015 and even then it would still not be cost competitive with TSMC. He said even as of a few weeks ago the finfet SOC models in the development kit were still unstable for mixed signal designers and the finfet process variation was difficult for methodologies.
LIKE AN APPLE: Microsoft will design their own ARM chip based on an ARM Mali graphics core. WinRT will run on a dedicated Microsoft Windows Metro Processor (No more Qualcomm, Nvidia fragmentation). TBA '13.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.