For years, Windows PCs have flirted with ARM processors, but none of the hardware was good enough to compete with x86 chips from Intel and AMD. Now, we might know why. According to a new report from XDA Developers, Microsoft has an exclusivity agreement with Qualcomm that prevents other vendors’ ARM designs from integrating with Windows. That’s the bad news. The good news is it will expire soon.
Microsoft and Qualcomm teamed up in 2016 to launch Windows 10 with support for ARM. Unfortunately, the difficulty of making software run well on Windows for ARM has impeded growth. This wasn’t even Microsoft’s first attempt at supporting ARM. In the Windows 8 era, it launched Windows RT for 32-bit ARM chips. It was a spectacular disaster, owing to the lack of app support. Newer chips from Qualcomm didn’t really help, either. The available hardware, like the Snapdragon 7c and the Microsoft-exclusive SQ1 leaned on Qualcomm’s mobile chip designs — they just didn’t have enough power for Windows.
According to XDA’s source, the Microsoft x Qualcomm collab guaranteed the latter a period of exclusivity for Windows on ARM. That explains why we’ve only seen a handful of Qualcomm-powered Windows machines despite years of effort. It could also shed light on why there is still no way to run Windows 11 on the new M1-based Apple machines.
We don’t know how long that deal was supposed to last or when exactly it will run its course, but we are assured it’s not too far off. That matches what we’re seeing in the market. MediaTek is gearing up to launch its own high-end ARM chips for Windows. Meanwhile, Qualcomm recently talked about its new generation of CPU designs from the newly purchased Nuvia team. These cores are designed for PCs, so they should be much more powerful when used in notebooks.
These companies have made it clear they feel the transition from Intel to ARM is inevitable. Apple has already shown that ARM is a viable architecture for Windows, and perhaps, Qualcomm’s exclusivity has only served to slow down the transition on Microsoft’s side. It might be a good time to nurse along your ailing Windows laptop. There could be big changes afoot in the coming year, provided that mysterious exclusivity times out. Five years seems like plenty of time for Qualcomm to make a go of things.