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Existing Windows applications won't run on ARM chips

Thinking that they will is just dreaming
Mon May 23 2011, 12:25
Microsoft Windows 7

THE LITTLE DUSTUP between Intel and Microsoft over the next version of Windows has attracted the attention of industry watchers.

This argument heated up after Microsoft rubbished Chipzilla's claim that existing Windows applications will not run on ARM chips and Intel said it's ready to support Linux instead to pick up the slack if that becomes necessary.

On the face of it, Intel would appear to be right. The prospect of legacy Windows applications running on ARM-based devices seems like pure fantasy, and I'm prepared to bet that it won't happen.

Not much is known about the next version of Windows, Microsoft declining to even confirm that Windows 8 is the official codename for the development project.

What is known is that Microsoft demonstrated a version of next-generation Windows running on ARM at CES earlier this year, and that the company plans to release a version of the platform for x86 PC systems and a version for ARM-based devices.

This is a world away from saying that the same applications will run on both platforms, and this is the point that Intel was trying to make during a shareholders' meeting earlier this week.

While it is possible that some applications will be available on both Windows for x86 and Windows for ARM (Microsoft has hinted there will be a native version of Office for ARM) it will most likely be down to the individual developer to produce a separate version for the two processor architectures.

Alternatively, Microsoft might be looking at a way for developers to produce a single executable capable of running across both platforms. But this would lead to new applications built for Windows 8 being incompatible with any existing version of Windows, which would be a drastic step for the company to take.

Whatever Microsoft is planning for the future, Windows applications today are compiled into native x86 instruction code, and will simply not work on ARM chips without running them through some form of emulator. This could be done, but the end result would be cumbersome and lead to an unsatisfactory experience for the user.

It isn't even certain yet whether Windows 8 on ARM will sport the same user interface as Windows 8 on the PC. Microsoft is said to be supporting the ARM architecture because it sees this as better suited to tablets and other mobile form factors, and this version of the platform could therefore have a user interface designed around touch input rather than a keyboard and mouse.

Tellingly, Microsoft accused Intel of being "factually inaccurate", but did not specify which of the many statements made by the Intel spokesperson were incorrect.

The company has declined to clarify any further details at this early stage in the development of next-generation Windows, but my money is on Intel being right, and that legacy Windows applications will not be seen on ARM devices.

Whether that will really matter in the end is a different issue, of course. µ

A version of this article first appeared on


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