Rumor: Windows 8 to use ARM CPUs, Smartphones

Dennis Faas's picture

It's rumored that Windows 8 may be released in special editions suitable for devices like smartphones and iPad-like tablets. The buzz has caused concern at Intel, whose products are at the heart of most traditional Windows computers.

The change involves the processor's instruction set architecture, which is at the very core of a computer. As a very loose analogy, the difference between rival instruction set architectures is as fundamental as the difference between organizing words alphabetically in a dictionary and organizing them by meaning in a thesaurus.

Most Windows PCs use Intel x86

Most current PCs use an instruction set architecture known as x86, which ultimately derives from an Intel processor first released in the 1970s. Windows has traditionally only been available in formats compatible with the x86 system.

Intel has now told investors it has learned Microsoft will produce a separate range of versions of Windows 8 that will run on the rival ARM architecture. That's a comparatively simpler set-up that is better suited to low-power systems. The vast majority of portable devices, particularly cellphones, use an ARM-based chip.

ARM Processors not Backwards Compatible

According to Intel, there will have to be four completely separate "flavors" of Windows 8 to cope with different variants of ARM, unlike x86 where all versions are compatible with one another.

Intel also argues that it will be difficult if not impossible for ARM editions of Windows 8 to support software designed for older editions, meaning it could be unsuitable for business use. (Source:

Microsoft: Intel Statements Inaccurate

It should be noted that Microsoft has described Intel's statements as "factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading."

Microsoft isn't willing to go into further details at this stage, however, other than to reiterate that its plans to pair up Windows with ARM systems are "at the technology demonstration stage." (Source:

Windows ARM: Too Little, Too Late?

What this means for Windows on portable devices is hard to predict.

In theory, it could mean that smartphones and tablets run what, in terms of the user experience, is a full-fledged version of Windows with the technical differences being entirely behind-the-scenes. That could help make up for the disappointing reception of the Windows Phone 7 series and the modified versions of Windows 7 currently running on some tablets.

The danger, though, is that the move may be coming too late, with the rise of the iPad and the forthcoming Google Chrome operating system (OS) suggesting many users may be able to work mainly from online applications, with less need for a full-blown operating systems, such as Windows.

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