Ina Fried

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Microsoft Plans to talk Windows on ARM at CES, but Products a Ways Off

After many months of working in secret, Microsoft is nearly ready to start talking about its plans to bring Windows to ARM-based processors.

However, while the company is set to discuss the effort at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show, there is still a lot that must be done before such products can hit the market.

Among the steps needed is for hardware makers to create ARM-compatible drivers, a time-consuming effort that explains in part why Microsoft is talking about the initiative well ahead of any products being ready.

It took Microsoft years, for instance, to move mainstream Windows users from 32-bit versions of the operating system to 64-bit versions, in large part because it took that long to get all of the necessary hardware drivers to enable the shift.

Microsoft has scheduled a press briefing for 1 pm PT on Jan. 5, ahead of Steve Ballmer’s keynote later that night. The event is expected to be the forum where Microsoft will discuss the ARM effort. A Microsoft representative declined to comment on the reported ARM move.

However, speculation about such a move has been increasing since the two companies signed an expanded licensing agreement back in July. Microsoft was deliberately vague at the time regarding the impact of the new agreement, making reference to then-existing efforts such as Windows Embedded and Windows Mobile.

“ARM is an important partner for Microsoft and we deliver multiple operating systems on the company’s architecture,” Microsoft general manager KD Hallman said in a July statement. “With closer access to the ARM technology we will be able to enhance our research and development activities for ARM-based products.”

Moving to ARM processors as an option for full-fledged Windows could pave the way for machines with significantly longer battery life–an issue that has become more important as competing mobile devices, especially tablets and smartphones, have been able to best the PC in that regard.

While much of the speculation regarding ARM-based Windows machines has centered on the impact this could have on tablets, the move is said to be as much about netbooks and low-power notebooks as it is about slates.

Though the Windows tie to Intel-architecture chips is legendary, it’s not the first time that Windows has run on chips other than the standard fare from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Windows once ran on chips from Digital Equipment, and Microsoft has also done server versions that supported Intel’s Itanium chip. However, such efforts are expensive and time-consuming. The fact that Microsoft is going ahead with the undertaking highlights the size of the threat posed by devices running on the lower-power-consuming ARM chips.

Although CES is an unusual venue to reach PC hardware makers, it does provide a big stage for Microsoft to reconfirm that it is serious about playing in the ultramobile device category.

Bloomberg first reported Microsoft’s plans to bring Windows to ARM earlier on Tuesday.