Marvell CEO Says ARM Chips are “Here to Stay,” With or Without Microsoft Windows

The CEO of Santa Clara, CA-based semiconductor maker Marvell, Sehat Sutardja, has downplayed the significance of rumors circulating this week that Microsoft plans to unveil a version of Windows that runs on low-power ARM chips like those made by Marvell, Qualcomm, Samsung, and many other companies.

Observers are saying that such a move would be another sign of the ARM platform’s rising strength, and could position Microsoft to make another run at the tablet market now dominated by Apple and Samsung.

But if the reports are correct, Microsoft would be a latecomer to an already-hopping party, Sutardja argues. “The ARM architecture is here to stay, it’s a done deal,” whether or not Windows ever turns up on the platform, Sutardja commented in an interview with Xconomy yesterday.

Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal reported this week, based on interviews with unnamed sources, that Microsoft will announce an ARM-compatible version of Windows at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. That would put an end to the longstanding “Wintel” duopoly under which Microsoft’s operating systems have run only on computers powered by x86 processors made by Intel and AMD. And it would give Microsoft an opening to license Windows for use on devices beyond PCs—namely, cell phones, tablet computers, and other battery-powered gear where ARM chips are the processors of choice because of their lower power consumption. (Windows CE and the newer Windows Phone 7 operating systems already run on ARM-based architectures, but the full-blown version of Windows doesn’t.)

Neither Microsoft nor ARM Holdings, the UK company that owns the intellectual property behind “Advanced RISC Machine” architecture, have commented on the Bloomberg and WSJ reports.

But to Sutardja, rumors about Windows on ARM are old hat. “There’s been talk about that for the last four or five years,” he says. “They have said publicly that they were going to support it; the question is when. I remember I went to an ARM forum at Microsoft four or five years ago, where they invited basically everybody in the industry. It was not a secret.”

It’s taken Microsoft some time to grow beyond its partnerships with Intel and AMD. The Redmond, WA-based software giant been experimenting with porting Windows to ARM at least since the Vista days, according to observers, but one major difficulty is that software written for Windows would itself have to be ported before it could run on ARM chips. The company announced in mid-2009—despite hints to the contrary shared by One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte and others—that it would not make the Windows 7 operating system available on ARM PCs.

And close Microsoft watchers like ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley still think an announcement about Windows on ARM is unlikely. If there is an announcement, Foley speculated this week, it may be about the latest version of Windows CE, or about Windows 8, the successor to Windows 7 expected in 2012 or 2013.

While Microsoft hesitates, other companies from Broadcom to Nvidia and from Texas Instruments to Apple are embracing ARM wherever they need power-efficient processors and software portability, Sutardja notes. Marvell itself is one of the oldest licensees of the ARM architecture, using it, for example, in its Armada processor for smartphones, e-readers, and tablet devices like its Moby reference design.

“There is nobody questioning whether ARM is any good anymore,” Sutardja says. “100 percent of cell phone devices and more and more electronics will use ARM, as a byproduct of the investment people have put into cell phones and mobile devices. Once you’ve written software for the handset, the same software can run in a TV, in a digital picture frame, in washing machines, in toys.”

Sutardja says the momentum behind ARM means that a version of Windows that runs on ARM chips is inevitable, whether it arrives soon or is delayed again for technical or business reasons. “If it’s true that they are going to introduce Windows on ARM, it’s going to be better for ARM,” he says. “It’s going to be better for Microsoft themselves. It’s better for everybody. But if not, in a year or two they will be there anyway.”

Sutardja’s comments came as part of an extended interview about Marvell. Xconomy will publish the full interview after the holidays.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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