scorecardMicrosoft is taking a second stab at one of its biggest failed experiments
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Microsoft is taking a second stab at one of its biggest failed experiments

Microsoft is taking a second stab at one of its biggest failed experiments
Tech5 min read

satya nadella

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Microsoft would probably like you to forget about Windows RT.

The company's 2012 attempt at creating a "lite" version of its Windows operating system - the poorly-received Windows 8, to be specific - Windows RT only ran on simplified ARM processors, the same kind of internal chips that power smartphones and tablets.

As a result, the devices that ran Windows RT only worked with the mobile-friendly apps in Microsoft's app store. There was a "desktop mode" that ran modified versions of some legacy apps (aka x86 apps) you'd download from the web, but it wasn't the same as the "full" Windows experience people had come to expect, and need.

It didn't go over well. Microsoft was very eager to have Windows latch onto the mobile boom it missed, but RT's app support was weak, many of those apps were more limited than their "regular" counterparts, and the Windows RT branding led to confusion over exactly what the OS was meant to be. It fizzled out in two years.

But Microsoft is trying again. There's Windows 10 S, for one, which the company unveiled earlier this month. Like Windows RT, it's a modified OS only lets you download apps from the Windows app store - though Microsoft has made more of an effort to get traditional apps to work within those confines.

Windows 10 S devices still work with desktop processors, though (i.e., Intel and, to a lesser extent, AMD). The more apt connection to Windows RT is Microsoft's renewed interest in putting Windows on a mobile, ARM-based chip.

The company announced in December that, with a few tricks, it could run full-blown Windows 10 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, much like the ones that power today's high-end smartphones.

Microsoft and Qualcomm took the next step in the ongoing project at the Computex trade show on Wednesday. The pair said that Lenovo, HP, and Asus have signed on to make Windows 10 devices that'll run on the Snapdragon 835, Qualcomm's highest-end mobile chip, which is also behind Samsung's Galaxy S8 and most other recent flagship phones.

Exactly what those devices will look like, when they'll be available, and how much they'll cost is still a bit fuzzy.

Qualcomm did mention a few general guidelines, though:

  • It says it's targeting 2-in-1 and "ultrathin" designs - or, "the segment of the PC market that's actually growing," as a Qualcomm spokesperson put it in an email.
  • It expects the partnerships noted above to lead to devices in the $600-800 range. That would put them in a spot above low-cost devices like Google's Chromebooks.
  • It says these new devices will begin to arrive sometime the "second half" of 2017. Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf had previously said the company was targeting the fourth quarter of the year.
  • It's focusing on the US and "Western Europe" to start, since those markets have embraced unlimited LTE data plans that the mobile chip supports.

In any case, at least some big-name manufacturers now think there'll be demand for this kind of PC.

FILE PHOTO: A sign marks the Microsoft office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S. January 25, 2017.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Thomson Reuters

FILE PHOTO: A sign marks the Microsoft office in Cambridge

It's hard to say just how well these devices will work until we're able to test them, but the benefits Qualcomm is touting aren't wildly different than the proposed benefits of Windows RT all those years ago. The idea here is that using a mobile chip will allow the PCs to feel a little more like smartphones.

The company says it wants some of the devices to get 20 or more hours of battery life, for one. (As always, take company projections with a grain of salt.) It's also pushing the idea that they'll work more smoothly with LTE networks - and faster "gigabit LTE" in the handful of areas where that's available - that'll keep you online when there's no WiFi.

Qualcomm says how you'll get LTE on these devices may vary by carrier; some people would be able to integrate their data plan into the device, others would be able to buy chunks of data via a carrier or Microsoft's online store. Qualcomm also says the devices will stay connected in standby mode - a few Windows PCs do this already, but it means that, like a smartphone, you could feasibly call on Cortana or sync data in the background when the PC's screen is off. Expect the devices themselves to be fanless (i.e., quiet) and on the slimmer side, too.

In theory, getting full Windows on a Snapdragon chip would also make it easier for Microsoft to build a Windows phone that can double as a desktop, through something like the company's "Continuum" feature. Nothing detailed here suggests that Microsoft is planning to go back down that route just yet, though.

The big question is still how well everything will perform. While the Snapdragon PCs can run apps from the Windows app store like normal, anything beyond that (like Chrome) will be emulated - i.e., not run natively.

That's been a ticket for mediocrity in the past, though Microsoft is building this emulation tech into Windows. Still, it seems safe to expect Snapdragon PCs to be less powerful than those with a traditional Intel Core chip; whether Microsoft's workaround will be good enough over time remains to be seen.

Qualcomm, for its part, says it expects the devices to have "comparable performance" to machines with a lower-power Intel Core i5 or Core M chips. Those have improved as of late, but it furthers the idea that Snapdragon PCs will be meant for mainstream buyers more than power-hungry professionals.

The easy assumption here is that Microsoft's longtime partnership with Intel is eroding. That may be premature: The vast majority of Windows PCs still use Intel chips, and the two are still tied together with future-facing projects like virtual reality. Plus, Microsoft said on Wednesday that various device makers plan to make LTE-capable Intel-based laptops as well.

Nevertheless, Microsoft's next stab at a more mobile Windows seems like it has a better chance of being a competitor than the first.

Get the latest Intel stock price here.

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