Microsoft has made versions of Windows 10 and Windows 11 that run on ARM chips, but until now, the company has not been interested in selling Windows on ARM licenses to anyone other than PC builders. The ARM versions of Windows can run on things like the Raspberry Pi or in virtualization apps that run on Apple Silicon Macs, but Microsoft doesn’t officially support this, and the company has never explained why.
One possible explanation comes from a report on XDA Developers, which claims that an exclusivity agreement with Qualcomm prevents Microsoft from making ARM versions of Windows more widely available. According to “people familiar with it,” that exclusivity agreement currently “holds back other chip vendors from competing in the space.” The Qualcomm deal is also said to end “soon”, though the report isn’t more specific about how soon “soon” is.
This allegation comes a few weeks after Rick Tsai, CEO of ARM chipmaker MediaTek, said on a corporate earnings call that MediaTek “definitely intends to[s]to run Windows on its chips. Qualcomm, MediaTek, Rockchip, and others all supply ARM chips for Chromebooks, in addition to the chips they all provide for Android devices.
Whether this Qualcomm deal exists or not, the fact is that Microsoft announced the availability of Windows on ARM with the collaboration of Qualcomm in 2016, and since the first modern ARM Windows systems shipped in late 2017, they have been powered exclusively. by Qualcomm chips. This includes the Surface Pro X’s Microsoft SQ1 and SQ2, which are Microsoft-branded but “developed in conjunction with Qualcomm”. An exclusivity deal can be mutually beneficial initially: Qualcomm gets all design gains for Windows on ARM systems for a few years, and Microsoft gets another chance to build an ecosystem for an ARM version after a few false starts. from Windows. But over time, it can also limit the variety of Windows-on-ARM systems or hinder performance due to a lack of competition.
If Microsoft runs Windows on other ARM processors, it could open the door to a virtualized version of Windows on Apple Silicon Macs. The performance drop for running x86 apps in the ARM versions of Windows would be much less noticeable on Apple systems, because the M1-series chips so thoroughly outperform anything Qualcomm has to offer right now.
And that’s what Windows on ARM needs to really succeed: hardware that can do for Windows PCs what the M1 chips have done for Macs. It was a smart bet for Microsoft to build a version of Windows that could run on ARM chips without giving up the app compatibility that keeps so many people stuck with Windows in the first place. But until we can get hardware that can match or beat Intel and AMD’s CPU performance while improving their power efficiency, the OS will remain a technical curiosity. The end of this exclusivity deal with Qualcomm, assuming it exists, opens the door for more chipmakers to try and deliver that speed and efficiency.