Microsoft unveils strong ARM tactic at CES

By Matt Greenop

Microsoft's next version of the Windows operating system will run small, powerful ARM processors to power tablet computers and other lightweight, big power devices.

The software giant showed a series of demos using the diminutive processors at a press conference this afternoon in Las Vegas, on the eve of the gadget industry's giant Consumer Electronics Show.

The ARM processors powering several devices displayed at today's conference were made by Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia, revealing a host of new processor partnerships for the new operating system.

A revised OS would bridge the gap between the current Windows 7 for computers and Windows Phone 7, which was released in 2010 and marked a much-needed boost in Microsoft's smartphone arsenal, which had been sorely lacking.

Windows division president Steven Sinofsky would not be drawn on when such an operating system would be released, possibly in order not to stand on the toes of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who will be making a keynote address to industry this evening.

Accepting the powerful ARM processors into the Windows eco system has turned into a must-do situation for Microsoft if it hopes to compete in the hot tablet market, which is being led by a significant margin by Apple's iOS-powered iPad and a host of devices running on various builds of arch-rival Google's Android operating system.

The ARM move will be some threat to chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), who Sinofsky says will continue to develop on the both the 32 and 64-bit x86 platforms for Windows.

ARM, which doesn't actually manufacture chips, provides blueprints to manufacturers. Its 'software on a chip' (SoC) architecture is able to run extremely rich and demanding content without chewing through power to the same degree as the two processor industry leaders. Intel and AMD will also explore SoC options.

Sinofsky said Microsoft was making the announcement now in order to spur partner action and to "bring the market the widest possible set of PCs and devices, from tablets on up, with the next generation of Windows".

"We've reached a point in technology where everyone really does want everything from their computing experience - the power and breadth of software for today's laptop, the long battery life and always-on promise of a mobile phone, and the possibilities from a new generation of tablets."

The Windows fusion with ARM is making solid engineering progress - as demonstrated today on several prototype devices.

Sinofsky said that today's announcement was to give the computing world an early look at the possibilities that SoC architecture offered.

"That includes support across a range of scenarios like hardware-accelerated web browsing with the latest Internet Explorer, USB device support, printing, and other features that customers have come to expect."

Internet Explorer 9 running natively (and quickly) on 'ARMed' Windows was shown on devices during the press conference, as was Office suite applications Word and PowerPoint.

"We know many of our most enthusiastic supporters are interested in learning more about the user interface, programming APIs, and other new features to come in Windows."

Another product on parade was the second generation of the Surface - essentially a tabletop touchscreen computer.

Surface can be used in bars and restaurants - Vegas' Hard Rock Cafe being one highlighted example, but the new version will be able to take a "beer bottle dropped from 18 inches".

The four-inch thick Surface 2 is made with the largest piece of Gorilla Glass ever produced.

It has done away with the camera mounted below the screen - explaining the new four-inch deep form factor, that also mean's it's now mountable - and adopts pixel-sensing technology that basically makes each pixel on the large screen a camera in itself. The pixels themselves will now sense movement and Surface 2 will respond accordingly.

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