Next Windows version to support System-on-a-Chip

Steve BallmerMicrosoft Wednesday announced that the next major release of Windows will offer support for System-on-a-Chip processors, including those based on the ARM architecture.

Presenting the show-opening keynote at CES 2011 in Las Vegas, CEO Steve Ballmer said the next version of Windows will include support for SOC designs from a variety of chipmakers, including both x86 giants AMD and Intel and partners like Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia building ARM-based systems.

It’s part of a broader effort by the software giant to make Windows available to a variety of devices, Ballmer explained, suggesting that it opens the door for the full Windows experience “from tablets to high-end gaming rigs.”

The keynote didn’t delve much into Microsoft’s revised tablet strategy, focusing instead on what Ballmer described as the “big three” screens for most consumers – the TV (via Xbox), the Windows Phone, and the Windows PC. The bombastic CEO has previously stated that Windows on tablets is a top priority for the company, but his CES comments suggested the company’s strategy will be to bring the full Windows client to those devices rather than building a pared down or tablet-specific version of the operating system.

“Whatever device you use, now or in the future, Windows will be there,” Ballmer said. “Windows will be everywhere, on every kind of device, without compromise.”

Showing off a test bed of the new Windows on SOC systems, Ballmer said that it will be “all of the performance and flexibility of Windows on low-power, long-lasting devices from the small screen to the big screen.”

No details of the timeline for the next version of Windows were mentioned, although Ballmer said the company was announcing the capability in advance of previewing any new features or user interface elements to allow a variety of device manufacturers to get ready.

“This is an important step for Microsoft and for the industry,” Ballmer said.

The demonstration included ARM-based systems running versions of applications like PowerPoint and Word that had been recompiled for ARM, but the company did not delve further into how or even if x86-compiled applications would run on the new platform.

Microsoft also demonstrated a wide variety of Windows-based systems from other vendor partners including HP, Samsung and Asus running x86 chips, including Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors and AMD’s new Fusion APUs, as well as a low-heat Samsung convertible tablet and a purpose-built Asus tablet with support for digital ink.

Ballmer also provided details of the next generation of the software giant’s Surface interface for large-format touch screens. The new Surface is significantly thinner than previous versions, replacing cameras within the table body for what Microsoft calls Pixelsense, using infarared to make every pixel in the display a camera. That new capability will allow Surface to move beyond its former confines of a tabletop display and into other form factors, most notably a kiosk. The company demonstrated an upcoming Royal Bank of Canada campaign that uses Surface and can interact directly with direct mail sent to customers or prospects.

The company also previewed new features soon to come for the Xbox and for its new Windows Phone 7 platform, detailing a soon-to-be-released update for the phones that will bring cut and paste to the platform as well as speeding application loading and switching. The Xbox saw a slew of minor announcements, mostly around its new Kinect controller replacement system, including support for Kinect gesture-based avatars, and Kinect gesture-powered versions of Netflix and Hulu Plus. All three are slated for release this spring, Microsoft said.