Microsoft Will Allow x86 Apps to Run on ARM Processors Thanks to an Emulator

Via a blog post, Microsoft has announced a special partnership with Qualcomm to make running x86-based Windows apps and Windows 10 in general on ARM-based processors a reality. This all arrives as the feature’s previous rumors and reports began popping up everywhere and hinting at what the tech giant might have in store.

Finally, to deliver on our customers’ growing needs to create on the go, we announced today that Windows 10 is coming to ARM through our partnership with Qualcomm. For the first time ever, our customers will be able to experience the Windows they know with all the apps, peripherals, and enterprise capabilities they require, on a truly mobile, power efficient, always-connected cellular PC.

The way this technology will work is via a cloud-based emulator that’ll allow you to use your Windows 10 Mobile phone or power-efficient PC with apps such as Photoshop, Chrome, and Office. This is similar to what HP is doing with Workspace and the Elite x3, however their approach is targeted more towards business users and not particularly the average consumer or office personnel. Microsoft says this feature will be even more convenient thanks to upcoming Windows 10-powered laptops and 2-in-1s featuring cellular connectivity that’ll allow users to connect to x86 apps wherever they are regardless if there’s Wi-Fi or not. This is all thanks to their partnership with Qualcomm, a company who makes chipsets with LTE connectivity and plenty of horsepower to run the apps in question.

You can check out an x86-based app running on a Qualcomm processor in the video below.

In an interview with The Verge, Terry Myerson, Microsoft’s Windows and device head, gives further information into the technicalities of this new capability, however remains off the record when it comes to exactly how the emulation will work.

“Think of it as the Windows 10 customers know,” explains Microsoft’s Windows and device chief, Terry Myerson, in an interview with The Verge. There will be support for peripherals, applications, and even enterprise capabilities. Microsoft isn’t detailing exactly how its emulation works, but developers won’t have to do anything special to get their apps to run on ARM chips. The regular MSI or EXE packages will work just like they do on machines with Intel chipsets. The differences will be largely in performance. Microsoft will be emulating the CPU instruction set, which means that any apps that are CPU heavy will still have greater performance on Intel-based machines. The rest of the I/O, like memory, storage, or graphics, will be intercepted by the emulator and handled natively by the operating system.

Qualcomm says the recently announced Snapdragon 835 will be the first ARM processor to support x86 Windows app emulation, while other chipsets from the company will also be supported down the line. However, since HP is able to run Workspace on a Snapdragon 820, I can’t see why Microsoft wouldn’t enable the feature for phones like the Elite x3 or even the Alcatel Idol 4s.

Hardware partners will be able to build a range of new Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered Windows 10 PCs that run x86 Win32 and universal Windows apps, including Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office and popular Windows games.

The second half of 2017 should be when we see the first devices supporting x86 app emulation with an 835 on deck, so stay tuned. Ideally, the new feature should arrive thanks to Redstone 3 (the next major update to Windows 10), software expected to be detailed this year at Build 2017.

With Microsoft allowing power-efficient ARM processors to run full-fledged Windows 10 apps, the dream of mobile computers with as much power as a desktop PC without the need to spec-out your device is becoming reality. The market to build a device such as this already exists, however it hasn’t been taken over by a major player such as Microsoft. Thanks to the partnership with Qualcomm, companies will no doubt be much more interested in developing work-based handsets and 2-in-1s with cellular data to provide their customers with a great option for getting work done on the go and staying productive. Of course, this feature will likely need some fine tuning before it’s perfect, so expect plenty of room for improvement when it launches next year.

You can learn more about x86 apps coming to ARM here.