Software

Windows 10 on your smartphone: Microsoft brings desktop apps to mobile

Giving Windows 10 phones the ability to run the broad sweep of Windows apps could make handsets more appealing to business.

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A shot of Windows 10 Enterprise edition running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, including Win32 apps.

Image: Microsoft

Today pretty much nobody uses Windows on their phone, with Microsoft's OS dwarfed by widespread adoption of Android.

But Microsoft yesterday announced a plan to use Windows' popularity on desktop to give the OS a foothold in the mobile space.

Next year Microsoft will update Windows 10 so it can run on mobile handsets, tablets, PCs and head-mounted displays that are powered by forthcoming ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.

Unlike existing Windows 10 phones, these Qualcomm Snapdragon-based handsets will run the same software as a traditional Windows PC, including legacy Win32 applications.

Giving Windows 10 phones the ability to run the broad sweep of Windows software, rather than the more limited subset available as Universal Windows Platform apps, should make these handsets more appealing to businesses.

SEE: Windows 10: The smart person's guide

If Windows 10 phones were to support legacy line-of-business and other desktop Win32 applications used by many firms, the ability of these handsets to run as a lightweight desktop PC would suddenly becomes a lot more useful.

That said there are many unknown factors that could limit its appeal. These handsets would run Win32 apps using emulation, necessary in order to run this x86 software on ARM-based hardware. This emulation has quite a large performance overhead, to the extent that earlier attempts at emulating x86 software on ARM platforms have generally struggled. It may be that Microsoft has been forced into this position after Intel effectively killed off its line of processors aimed at the smartphone market.

However, Microsoft claims to have developed an efficient emulator that it has shown running Windows 10 Enterprise edition on existing Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, see the video below.

Also Qualcomm has more powerful hardware waiting in the wings, with the first devices running on its Snapdragon 835 SoC—which Qualcomm claims boost performance by 27 percent over its predecessor—due out towards the end of next year.

Microsoft has attempted to broaden Windows to mobile platforms in the past and failed, with the lacklustre take-up of Windows RT. However, there are crucial differences between this platform and RT. RT was based on the generally unpopular Windows 8 OS, was based on far less powerful hardware and also had a relatively limited selection of apps, due to incompatibility with Win32 software.

The move will also present a new opportunity for ARM-based laptops to take off, with Microsoft talking about "hardware partners" building a "range of new Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered Windows PCs" that are due out next year.

"The mobile experience has set the tone for the modern computing age that is now shaping the future of PCs with connected, efficient devices running Windows 10," said an ARM spokesman.

That said, while ARM-based processors once promised longer battery life than Intel-based devices, due to the low power consumption of ARM-based chips, Intel has been lowering its power draw while maintaining performance. The fruits of this work can be seen in the HP Spectre x360 convertible laptop, one of several new machines, based on Intel's Kaby Lake-Y microarchitecture.

Richard Edwards, principal research analyst with Ovum, said: "PC manufacturers clearly think there's room for ARM-based PCs, so long as they can run all of the applications in the Windows universe without modification or code re-write.

"We'll have to wait and see how well Microsoft's Win32 emulation feature performs with home-grown applications, but the signs look promising."

The move isn't necessarily bad news for Intel he said, suggesting there could be a market for ARM-based and Intel-based PCs to exist side-by-side.

"The Windows 10/Qualcomm announcement doesn't appear to hurt Intel's stock price, so the financial institutions clearly think this is an opportunity to grow the market rather than a move which could eat into Microsoft's core market of highly performant, business desktops and laptop PCs."

The Qualcomm announcement was made at the WinHEC conference in China, where Microsoft also confirmed that head-mounted displays from Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, and Lenovo that are designed to be used with Windows 10 will be available next year. Microsoft also said it has submitted its HoloLens augmented reality headset for government approval in China, with a view to making it available to developers and commercial customers in the country in the first half of 2017.

Read more on Windows 10

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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