Windows 8 stable on ARM, going to developers soon, say sources

Windows 8 on ARM is coming along nicely, thank you, according to a couple of sources with whom CNET spoke.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
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Windows 8 running on a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor at CES.
Windows 8 running on a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor at CES. Brooke Crothers

Windows 8 is stable on the ARM chip platform and will be seeded to developers soon, sources told CNET. Devices may be priced significantly less than their Intel counterparts, too.

Windows 8 on ARM should go to developers in February, said one source, who had some hands-on time with a high-profile device from a major PC maker, adding that Windows 8 was impressive and stable.

"In October of last year. [Windows 8 on ARM] scared the industry because it was unstable. But what we are seeing now is quite stable," said another source, who also confirmed an expected February developer time frame.

"We haven't heard this directly from Microsoft, but we've heard this from the hardware partners that [Microsoft] is working with. We've been promised something in the February time frame," the person said.

ARM is less costly: Maybe most significantly, one source said a high-profile device that was demonstrated with fanfare at CES running on Intel chips is expected to be priced hundreds of dollars less on ARM. That device--from a top-tier PC supplier--is cosmetically identical to the Intel device, the source, who saw the ARM-based device, said.

"The bigger implication is, with [Intel-based] ultrabooks you're popularizing the idea that you have this thinner design that turns on faster, that lasts longer [battery life]--but then you have Windows 8 on ARM that's built at a price point that's much lower. And does all of those things too. This is setting up the ultrabook to head right into the teeth of their [ARM] competitor," according to the source.

ARM and Intel releases not necessarily staggered: And another potential plus for ARM: There's no reason to believe that the release of Windows 8 on ARM and Intel platforms should be "staggered," said one source, implying that the release of Windows 8 on ARM should not be later than the release of Windows 8 on Intel. The source, however, made it clear that this was his impression and not based on any official word from Microsoft. Others have claimed that Windows on ARM will be late.

Windows 8 has been characterized as the most significant Microsoft operating system upgrade since Windows 3.0. And that may not be an overstatement. For the first time, a mainstream Microsoft operating system will run on both Intel/AMD chips and ARM--the latter the most widely used chip design in the world.

The largest ARM chip suppliers today are Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. Windows 8 is running stably on at least two ARM platforms, according to one source.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of lingering questions, though. One of the biggest is Microsoft Office. Neither of the sources have seen Microsoft's killer app running on ARM, but one person said that "I'm hearing Office is fine [on ARM]."

And about those legacy apps: Then there's legacy applications, a point Intel is not bashful about bringing up since it expects this to be a compelling advantage over ARM, at least initially. "I'm not aware of any third-party legacy applications running on Windows 8 on ARM," one source said. "Of course, some of the Metro apps that Microsoft has demoed will be available on Windows on ARM. These are mostly HTML5 apps," this person said.

"That's one of the snags that Microsoft is trying to work through. You want to come out with a fairly robust library of applications," the other source said.

Both believe this is one of the reasons Microsoft is being cautious about demonstrating Windows 8 on ARM. Public demonstrations of Windows 8 on ARM at CES were of two kinds: either lifeless exhibits of devices doing next to nothing behind glass, or tightly controlled seconds-long demonstrations that revealed little.

Microsoft declined to comment.