Rumor: Microsoft may bring x86 compatibility to Windows on ARM

Remember the Surface RT? Microsoft's ill-fated attempt to break away from its dependence on Intel was more or less ignored by the market, probably due to its reliance on the Windows Store and its limited selection of ARM-compatible apps. As it happens, Windows on ARM isn't actually dead yet. I know, I was surprised too. A few companies are still producing Windows phones and tablets. There are even rumors regarding an upcoming Surface-branded smartphone. Perhaps in an effort to make those devices more broadly useful in the Windows ecosystem, rumors are surfacing that suggest Microsoft is working on an x86 emulator that could let most of today's Windows applications run on ARM devices.

Apps from the Windows Store should already work seamlessly on any Windows device (thanks to the Windows Runtime), but desktop apps obviously aren't going to work on an ARM machine without modification. The ability to run classic Win32 applications on a Windows 10 Mobile device could make those devices a viable choice for organizations that rely on mission-critical apps not found on any other platform.

One of the biggest possible beneficiaries of an x86 compatibility layer for Windows on ARM devices might be Microsoft's Continuum feature. For the unfamiliar, Continuum is the company's name for Windows 10 Mobile's ability to automatically sense its usage context. That means that a phone app might change to a desktop version when an HDMI cable is plugged in, and offer to connect to bluetooth input devices. Continuum looks pretty neat as-is, but the ability to seamlessly switch between touch and desktop modes would arguably be more useful with a full range of desktop apps to go with it. An x86-to-ARM compatibility layer could be a good solution for this conundrum.

Now, emulators are slow, and for all their wonderful qualities, ARM processors aren't known for being speed demons. A pure x86 emulator on ARM probably wouldn't provide functional results. However, last night Twitter user @h0x0d (who goes by the name WalkingCat) found a reference in the latest Windows Development Kit to "CHPE". That cryptic acronym could mean almost anything, but @h0x0d seems to think it refers to a "hybrid x86-on-ARM64" technology.

Mary Jo Foley over at ZDnet says her sources have told her that the C stands for "Cobalt." Besides being the name of a fun multiplayer game from Mojang, Cobalt is also apparently the codename of Microsoft's x86-on-ARM technology. She posits that the HP stands for, well, HP, based on strong demand for x86 apps from Elite X3 users. Ms. Foley then goes on to say that, according to her sources, Cobalt is slated to come along with the "Redstone 3" update to Windows 10 coming out in the Fall of 2017.

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