Windows on ARM is finally going to put an end to Wintel dominance - and that's a good thing

Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite
(Image credit: Future)

ARM systems could account for 50% of the PC Windows PC market before 2030. That's the belief not of some Intel-hating crank or slightly off-kilter, sandwich-board-wearing doomsday proclaimer – it's the view of Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon, and it's not as wild an idea as it seems.

Though, based on history, you could be forgiven for doubting him.

Microsoft Windows PCs and Intel x86 CPUs have been inextricably linked for 40 years, spawning the term 'Wintel PCs', which simply means similar Windows PCs running Intel CPUs.

For much of desktop computing history, the world's most popular operating system ran on Intel CPUs. The x86 chip platform was so dominant that Apple eventually adopted Intel chips for its laptops and desktops, shoving aside the custom-built Motorola/IBM PowerPCs.

Since the mid-1980s Intel's primary competition in the x86 space has been AMD, though Statista still puts AMD's market share at just 20%.

The divorce

The threat to Intel's dominance and the unshakeable Wintel partnership has not come from AMD. No, the true contender is off the x86 platform and comes from a smaller, and more efficient silicon land known as ARM (Advanced RISC Machine). ARM is not a company building chips; rather, it's an architecture, much like x86, for building fast, efficient CPUs that meet the performance and light-touch energy needs of modern smartphones.

Part of the blame for the potential demise of the Wintel marriage is Apple. The company that once jettisoned more bespoke CPUs for the same x86 chips found in competing Windows systems made a pledge in 2020 to eventually move all its Mac systems to its own Apple silicon, a series of ARM-based SoCs. Sure, Apple would need Rosetta 2 emulation software to bridge the gap between legacy apps and new, more efficient (and faster) silicon, but Apple was convinced it was worth the trade-off.

Spoiler alert: it was totally worth it and now, for instance, the MacBook Airs running M3 SoCs are among our best laptops. They're faster, and offer unbelievable battery life. More importantly, the Rosetta 2 connection doesn't feel like a kludge and, for most tasks, using an M-class Mac feels the same as using an Intel-based one.

Now, did Microsoft look at one of its chief competitors and wonder, "Where's my ARM?"

Not exactly.

An ARM and a legend

Microsoft has had Windows-on-ARM dreams for well over a decade. It was a pet project of former Microsoft Surface Lead Steven Sinofsky, who showed off Windows RT running on an ARM-based Surface RT tablet in 2012. It didn't run much, and the project ultimately died – but not the dream.

Fast-forward 12 years and ARM-based SoCs are the belle of the desktop and laptop computing ball. Apple proved it was not only possible but desirable to run traditional desktop apps on what was initially designed to be a mobile CPU.

Microsoft tried to follow suit with the SQ series on Surface Pro systems, but somehow it didn't catch on. My guess is that Microsoft and its partner Qualcomm didn't do enough to make the SQ series compelling, and that Windows didn't change enough to make the ARM/Windows objection-proof.

Things have changed, though, and we've arrived at an inflection point where a Windows/ARM combination makes not just good sense, but more sense than a Wintel PC.

With the launch of a Snapdragon X-Plus and X-Elite, Qualcomm is primed to power not just a handful of wonky Windows 11 systems. This ARM silicon will be at the core of almost two dozen new laptops. Thanks to Prism (Microsoft's version of Rosetta emulation software), these systems will soon run far more of the x86 software than before. Most importantly, though, they'll be running a very different Windows, one that's adopted AI as its north star.

The power of AI

Instead of just the pairing of ARM processing and Microsoft's Windows, you'll get a digital quad that includes the ARM CPU, Windows, an NPU, and Copilot.

You see, modern ARM SoCs are more than efficient and powerful CPUs and GPUs, and virtually all of them include neural processing units (NPUs). Like the coprocessors of your grandfather's PCs that were dedicated to handling math operations, these NPUs live to calculate AI operations, and they're very good at it. A few months ago, I saw the X-Elite effectively handle some pretty intense AI tasks (music, image, and video generation) and do it all on-device without missing a beat.

The promise of these new chips is unprecedented power and battery life that can, in some instances, extend to more than a day instead of just hours.

Amon's beliefs seem less wild when you consider how many OEMs are embracing these new chips. Where some might have been reticent to support the new, especially in the face of an ingrained Wintel marketplace, they're now ready to adopt Qualcomm's ARM plan with, if not abandon, then enthusiasm.

The reality check here is that while ARM-based laptops already own around 10% of the market, it's not necessarily 10% of the Windows PC market. That number could be made up almost entirely of the last few years of Apple silicon systems.

The number of Windows-on-ARM systems is probably a rounding error – but that's for now. Offer consumers fast, AI-ready Windows laptops that can last for 24 hours on a charge, and connect via 5G at any time and place while giving nothing back on the performance side, and they will flock to them – even if they have to pay a premium.

I expect Qualcomm Windows Copilot PCs to sell like hotcakes, and to set in motion the demise of the Wintel PC. Intel will survive, but its position may be vastly diminished.

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Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.