Microsoft, just give up on the whole Windows-on-Arm idea — the fixation on Apple and the Qualcomm dalliance could end up harming the very partners that stood by your side for 40 years

Microsoft Surface Laptop and Surface Pro devices on a table.
(Image credit: Microsoft)

I remember reading in an old-school computer magazine a few decades ago, a quote about the influence of Intel and Microsoft on the PC ecosystem. “If Intel told PC vendors to jump, they would hesitate, if Microsoft told them to jump, they’d say, how high”.

The recent launch of Microsoft’s Copilot Plus scheme illustrates how far reaching the company's sway remains within the industry, nearly 40 years after the launch of Windows. The who’s who of computing stood shoulder to shoulder with Microsoft as 20 models - including Microsoft’s own Surface - made their debut.

For seasoned veterans, this felt like a deja-vu: back in 2012, Windows RT was Microsoft’s first mainstream attempt to move away from what felt like the shackles of x86 legacy. CISC architecture, which underpins Intel and AMD processors, was delivering small incremental improvements. Intel announced its second generation Core family (Sandy Bridge) in 2011 while AMD was still struggling with its Llano-based Athlon range.

Back then, Microsoft had Apple firmly in its sights as the original Surface was meant to compete with the Apple iPad tablet (launched in 2010). Back then, Microsoft teamed up with Nvidia, using the Tegra 3 and 4 (remember these?) for version 1 and 2 before transitioning to x86 for Surface RT 3 and flipping back again in 2020 with the Surface Pro X, powered by the now-defunct, Qualcomm-designed, Microsoft SQ1/SQ2 system-on-chip.

I read a feature written by Microsoft connoisseur, Tom Warren, for The Verge with some unease. It narrates how the firm had now zeroed on the MacBook Air as the new target. “For years, the MacBook Air has been able to smoke Arm-powered PC chips — and Intel-based ones, too.” He quipped. “Except, this time around, the Surface pulled ahead on the first test. Then it won another test and another after that. The results of these tests are why Microsoft believes it’s now in position to conquer the laptop market.” 

It seems that new Microsoft, with Satya Nadella at the helm, is treading the same beaten path of yesteryear, with the end result likely to be the same. At least in my opinion. The company - and its partners - probably lost billions on the original Windows RT project: Lenovo, Samsung, Acer, Asus, Dell, and the then-independent Nokia got burnt as well, backing the ill-fated project. Microsoft alone wrote nearly $1 billion off in terms of stock value.

Why am I so pessimistic about the outcome of the current Windows-on-Arm (WoA) drive? Well, the fundamental problem still remains. Microsoft still doesn’t fully control the entire stack and that is the single most important difference. It depends on Qualcomm for the chips and other partners for the actual devices (and to help in spreading the Gospel of WoA). 

Getting different companies - with different ambitions, product lines, focus, and leaderships - to work like Apple would is a pipedream. Microsoft could go all in if it really wanted to. It could have (and still can) purchased Mediatek, Qualcomm, or Arm for that matter. 

After all, Microsoft - like Qualcomm - has had an Arm architectural license since 2010 and used it to great effect to build its server chip in November last year. Microsoft’s Azure Cobalt 100 is based on Arm with zero input from Qualcomm or any other chip vendors. So, if Microsoft can do it in the datacenter, why not in the client market?

For all the chest-beating exercises that Warren’s article depicted, the sobering reality is that Microsoft’s WoA push is all about now. The fact that the focus was on the entry-level Apple MacBook Air (rather than the entire range) feels like a travesty, like picking up on the weakest kid in school. Then there’s Apple irrepressible appetite for better, faster, further. The latest Apple M4 - which powers the latest iPad Pro tablet - can be faster than the desktop-bound M2 Ultra (at least when liquid cooled).

The M3 processor inside the MacBook Air that was extensively tested on Microsoft’s Redmond campus will probably reach end-of-line in two years as Apple refreshes its lineup. Keeping up with Apple in that case will require more than just a one-off product refresh, it necessitates a whole paradigm shift that can only happen if and when Microsoft is in total control, nothing less. 

What will AMD and Intel think?

Another conversation topic is what will AMD and Intel think about Microsoft cosying up with Qualcomm during what is arguably the most important event in Microsoft’s calendar, its Build conference. Both x86 lynchpins were firmly in the backseat as Snapdragon took center stage as Microsoft unveiled the Copilot Plus (or Copilot+) PC initiative.

With NPU TOPS being flaunted as the new performance currency, Intel and AMD have been found wanting; neither has mobile parts that can deliver the 40 TOPS target imposed by Microsoft, which warrants the question of whether AMD and Intel were aware of Microsoft’s plans and didn’t act on them and why is Microsoft betting on Arm again rather than on the tried-and-trusted x86 architecture.

I was surprised to see that business laptops based on the new architecture were also launched. HP, Dell, Lenovo and Microsoft had enterprise flagship laptops on stage to highlight their commitment to the push, where enhanced native compatibility - triggered by Apple’s move to Arm with the M1 - and class-leading battery life were the main messages.

If Microsoft wants to convince the target audience that these were not glorified, expensive Chromebook replacements, the new devices will need to be adopted as shoe-in replacement for existing fleets, rather than alternatives to MacBook Air, sans GPU or legacy ports. The diversity of the x86 ecosystem is what makes it nearly impossible - even for Microsoft - to corral its members like Apple users.

Computex 2024, which starts in a few weeks, will be where the chatter and the gossip will emerge from the wider PC supply chain. This is where we will know whether, after the 2012 debacle of Windows RT, vendors are paying lip service to Microsoft or truly believing in an Arm-based future.

Speaking of Arm, The Register’s Tobias Mann reminds us of the little-known fact that Arm has sued Qualcomm for breaching the terms of its architectural license with Arm when it purchased CPU startup Nuvia as it is adapting Armv8 architecture rather than embracing Armv9 - like Apple did with the M-series. This, as the author highlights, “would throw a rather large spanner in the works not just for the Snapdragon house but also its partners like Microsoft, if the legal battle came to that.” 

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.