Windows on Snapdragon Now Inevitable

On 13 October, Microsoft celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Surface hardware line with the release of the new Surface Pro 9 two-in-one designs. Rather than serving as a mere hardware refresh, the new devices saw the introduction of the Arm SQ3 system-on-chip (SoC), co-developed with Qualcomm. The Arm-based Windows device is the only product in the new range with 5G connectivity; it also has exclusive features such as video conferencing enhancements using artificial intelligence (AI) on Microsoft Teams.

This move to elevate Arm architecture relative to Microsoft’s traditional x86-based hardware reflects an ongoing shift in the Windows silicon strategy — the company had earlier signalled a partnership with Qualcomm on Project Volterra to develop Arm-native toolchains. Windows on Arm, an offering with a chequered development history, is now poised for mass adoption as the next mobile PC platform of choice, with Microsoft as its champion and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips at its core.

Shifting consumer behaviour in mobile computing has placed premiums on long battery life, always-on connectivity, and AI enhancements — all of which excel on Arm-based PC hardware and present challenges to traditional x86 platforms. Microsoft’s tacit acknowledgement of this evolution explains its move to prioritize Windows on Snapdragon as the hardware of choice for its products like the Surface Pro 9 5G.

So why, after 10 long years of development, is Microsoft finally going fully in with Arm-based PC architecture? The reason is twofold; first is control and flexibility, with the platform giving Microsoft the ability to build custom silicon requirements in a way that’s not possible with x86. Secondly, the dramatic improvements made in Arm chipsets and accelerated by AI make them extremely attractive in the long term. If Microsoft is to rival the performance credentials enabled by Apple’s shift to Arm, it needs to work closely with partners, such as Qualcomm, to compete.

Apple’s successful transition to its M series chips for Mac demonstrates the viability of using Arm-based chipsets in client computing. The success of the MacBook and iMac devices built using the M chips is underpinned by the highly efficient custom CPU cores designed by Apple, drawing on over a decade of experience building silicon for iPhone and iPad products. The M series’ computing, graphics and neural engine cores are custom Apple designs, representative of the firm’s vertical integration strategy. And from an end-user perspective, the migration of macOS from Intel to Apple silicon was relatively frictionless.

Implementing these changes in Windows is substantially more difficult; enterprises expect binary compatibility for applications compiled decades ago, and removing support for older services is likely to result in businesses using unsupported versions of Windows. Microsoft’s initial approach, Windows RT, dropped compatibility with older Windows applications. This failed to gain traction in the market, leading to Microsoft discontinuing Windows RT and Nvidia Tegra-powered Surface devices in 2015.

Microsoft returned to Arm in December 2017 as part of a partnership with Qualcomm for Windows on Snapdragon devices. These products included an inline emulation layer to allow x86 applications to run on Arm, although this excluded kernel extensions, device drivers and shell extensions. Subsequent robust developer tools — including May 2022’s Project Volterra — means the network now has a fully native set of Arm tools.

Qualcomm’s partnership with Microsoft is central to the progress of Windows on Arm. The Arm-based SQ3 SoC in the Surface Pro 9 is largely based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx; the chip designer has made steady progress on its own Windows Arm-based SoCs over the past five years, capturing major design wins — such as the enterprise-grade Lenovo ThinkPad X13s — thanks to silicon that showcases progress in battery life and integrated cellular network connectivity. Although these designs are targeted toward a mix of computing tasks for notebook PCs, Qualcomm doesn’t presently offer higher-power desktop- or workstation-class SoCs for computationally intensive workloads.

This shortcoming motivated Qualcomm to purchase Nuvia, a start-up founded by former Apple and Google chip designers that initially focussed on bringing Arm chips to data centres (see Qualcomm Acquires Nuvia in Custom CPU Push). Qualcomm’s aim was to acquire an Arm core implementation fit for higher-power notebooks and desktop or workstation systems. Nuvia-origin SoC designs are expected to become available to manufacturers as samples in the second half of 2023 under the name Oryon CPU, with the next generation of Windows on Snapdragon PCs shipping by 2024. It’s expected that Oryon CPU Snapdragon designs will be instrumental in closing the power and performance gap with Apple.

Alex Katouzian, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s mobile, compute and XR division, stated that products with Nuvia-origin cores are expected to outperform equivalent x86 platforms by 2024; workloads using AI are likely to be the largest beneficiaries. These cores will enable Qualcomm to compete in silicon for mobile, notebook and desktop devices — elevating Windows on Snapdragon to meaningfully compete there too. Although there’s a licensing dispute between Arm and Qualcomm about Nuvia, road map development continues. Settlement is a likely outcome.

At its annual Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit on 16 November, the company further promoted progress in Snapdragon computing with major announcements with software developer Adobe on AI-processing capabilities for its Creative Suite software and cloud applications. Adobe Fresco and Adobe Acrobat applications will become native for Windows PCs powered by Snapdragon. Additionally, Citi, a financial services provider and enterprise customer announced the transition of more than 70% of its 300,000 global users to Windows on Snapdragon PCs. Both developments not only highlight the growing industry support for Windows on Snapdragon but also the recognition of the successful Microsoft and Qualcomm partnership bearing fruit.

Windows on Snapdragon has come a long way since Microsoft and Qualcomm embarked on their partnership nearly a decade ago. What has been a long and uncertain journey is now looking more assured as major pieces of the puzzle come together. Microsoft has put into place the necessary investment in Arm-native tools, prioritizing Windows 11 builds for Arm platforms. At the same time, Qualcomm is working to bring a step-function improvement for Arm-based PC processors to market. This concerted push in elevating Windows on Snapdragon to first-class hardware status will signal to both companies’ partners the direction of their investment and technology road maps.

Just as Microsoft Surface was envisioned as both a dual-purpose consumer product and a signpost for the direction of Windows PC innovation, the joint investment of Microsoft and Qualcomm serves as a demonstration of Arm’s potential. Microsoft’s hardware and software partners should use this platform investment to bring devices to market that are competitive against Apple silicon-powered products. CCS Insight predicts that the breadth of Windows products running Arm silicon will grow significantly over the next two years.