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Windows RT to Support ARM-Based Processors

Because of its small footprint and power-sipping qualities, ARM has been a favorite of smartphone makers for years.

The next version of Microsoft Windows will depart from its predecessors in a number of ways, one of the most important of which will be freeing the operating system from the x86 straitjacket that it has been in for years.

Among the flavors in the new Windows 8 lineup will be Windows RT. "RT" stands for RunTime, the development platform introduced by Microsoft last year to create apps for its Metro interface, which is expected to usher in a new generation of apps that fully exploit cloud productivity, Web connectivity and touch tactility.

Unlike past Microsoft offerings, Windows RT will support processors based on ARM architecture. Because of its small footprint and power-sipping qualities, ARM has been a favorite of smartphone makers for years. It has even made some inroads into the server space, a development that Microsoft, no doubt, has noticed and is on somebody's pinboard for future review.

Moreover, ARM seems tailor-made for the next generation of notebook computers. Although ARM-based laptops would compete with the emerging Ultrabook platform being championed by Intel, the Redmond crew appears to have ARM notebooks, as well as tablets, in mind by baking into Windows RT devices new touch-enabled versions of Office and OneNote.

That, by the way, doesn't bode well for Office fans salivating for a version of the suite on the iPad. Office exclusivity on a Microsoft tablet would be a major carrot for the suite's many users who might be shopping for a tablet.

There's a downside to Windows RT, however. Legacy Windows applications, which are written for chips based on Intel's x86 architecture, won't run on it. That's a big barrier to adoption, especially in corporate environments where legacy apps are a staple.

Another aspect of RT that might irk business is the absence of support for Storage Spaces. Storage Spaces was added to Windows 8 to help small businesses address their growing storage needs.

On the plus side, however, RT supports encryption of all the data on the device it's running on. That's particularly important in the mobile space, where devices like phones, tablets and thin-and-light notebooks may be misplaced, or worse, stolen.

"[W]e have reimagined Windows from the chipset to the experience -- and bringing this reimagined Windows to the ARM processor architecture is a significant part of this innovation," Windows president Steven Sinofsky recently wrote in a Microsoft blog.

"Expanding the view of the PC to cover a much wider range of form factors and designs than some think of today is an important part of these efforts," he continued. "Windows on ARM enables creativity in PC design that, in combination with newly architected features of the Windows OS, will bring to customers new, no-compromise PCs."

By adding RT to the Windows lineup, Microsoft is sending a strong message to its fans and foes alike that it will be in a strong position to compete in the so-called "Post PC Era," where the PC is no longer the center of personal computing.

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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