Microsoft Gives More Details About The PC’s Future At WinHEC, And It Looks Brighter

By Patrick Moorhead - December 8, 2016
WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Community) is Microsoft’s string of conferences designed to get hardware developers jazzed about developing for the Windows platform. Microsoft’s goal, like anyone with an ecosystem, is to get their fair share of resources committed to their platform. At this year’s WinHEC 2016 in Shenzhen today, Microsoft laid out what could possibly be the biggest look into the future of the personal computing platform we have seen in a while. Part of that has to do with the upcoming Creator’s Update that is coming to Windows 10 next year that will enable new and more immersive user experiences. Microsoft brought both Intel and Qualcomm on stage to talk about the developments from each of the companies and how each of them is working with Microsoft to enable new experiences to users with Windows. Project Evo Microsoft talked about their collaboration with Intel to enable a new wave of PCs called “Project Evo” which is a partnership to deliver the most cutting edge technologies inside products with Intel inside. These include capabilities like far-field audio for high quality Cortana experiences from anywhere in the room, mixed reality experiences through affordable PCs and HMDs (head mounted displays). This serves as a way for Microsoft and Intel to ensure that they don’t miss and in some cases, lead this new wave of immersive computing. Related to intelligent agents, I could never understand how or why a PC with a 1000x processing capability didn’t beat to market the capabilities of an Amazon Echo. I am hopeful future PCs will be able to surpass these capabilities given the lower latency capabilities and processing capabilities of a PC. Microsoft and Intel will also work together to increase the security of Windows PCs with a blending of Intel’s hardware capabilities and Microsoft’s threat intelligence, complementing one another. Building in additional security will be crucial for the ever-increasing threats that users encounter on a daily basis. This is a great use case for a PC, which is so much more open than other platforms, and which has so much performance. The two companies even talked about gaming and enabling better gaming experiences with better streaming capabilities, High Dynamic Range (HDR), spatial audio and deeper color gamuts for richer visuals. These advancements will serve to continue to move forward the existing PC form factors in ways that make them attractive and worthy of an upgrade. I’m glad to see the PC platform strive to lead in a few new use cases, something it has lacked for a while. Making PC-quality AR/VR/MR mainstream Today, Oculus and HTC-Vive class PC VR costs over $1,000 and requires a lot of setup time. While I don’t think we’ve yet perfected the VR experience with things like 8K per eye and zero-latency wireless, it’s equally as important to drive the costs down to make AR, VR and MR (merged reality) more accessible to users. Microsoft is working with Intel on bringing mixed reality to the mainstream with things like their specifications for PCs that will run the first mixed reality HMDs. Additionally, Microsoft and Intel have been working together on the HoloLens which has been out for quite some time and are working on making it available in China. Following the China thread, Microsoft is also working with 3Glasses to enable their millions of users to access the Windows 10 ecosystem and its thousands of apps and content. The expansion into China will be very crucial for Microsoft to gain traction in what is without a doubt the biggest VR market and will help Microsoft gain users quickly. Connecting PCs to the WWAN with eSIM and MVNO Getting pervasive LTE connectivity on PCs has been a hit or miss proposition in many parts of the world and even across OEMs. Microsoft and its partners are trying to change this. Microsoft today also announced they would be enabling always-connected PCs in a multitude of new ways. Part of Microsoft’s new “always connected” experience will allow for users to directly buy data directly from the Windows Store. This means that Microsoft could be helping to deliver on the always connected aspect of Windows 10 and doubling down by becoming an MVNO and embedding eSIM technology. One way to enable this kind of always connected experience will be to have some of the best modems and services in the world and Microsoft has announced partnerships there as well. Full Windows 10 capabilities on Qualcomm in what Microsoft calls the “cellular PC” Microsoft brought Qualcomm on stage and announced how the two companies are working together to bring ARM to Windows 10. These new devices are planned to be powered by Qualcomm’s next-generation Snapdragon devices, starting with the Snapdragon 835. Microsoft will now have one version of Windows 10 for both x86 and ARM processors and will accomplish this through UWP apps and legacy emulation for Win32 legacy apps. This is technically different than the Windows RT days, which many users remember for slow-running apps even though they were natively supported. I attribute that to either the ARM-based chipsets not delivering enough performance or the OS not being optimized enough. This technically looks like a different scenario than in the past but not without its own caveats and TBDs. Where this is similar to Windows RT is how end users will evaluate the final product, on its merits of capabilities, performance, security, and compatibility. I do expect that the Snapdragon 835 will deliver 10X the raw performance than those chips running Windows RT, but to support Win32 apps, Qualcomm and Microsoft will need to emulate the x86 processor calls in a similar way that Apple did moving from PowerPC to x86. There is always an overhead and it will be hard to estimate it broadly as they will vary from app to app. As for compatibility with third party peripherals, Microsoft told me in an email that, "Unlike RT or prior solutions, we think we’ll achieve nearly 100% compatibility on Printers/Scanners". The new Snapdragon-based devices with Windows 10 are expected to ship in the second half of 2017 and hopefully that should give Microsoft, Qualcomm and ISVs enough time to sort out the software complexities. We should already account that Microsoft is already working with Qualcomm in the HP Elite X3 which has Windows 10 Mobile and a Snapdragon 820 inside. So, that means that many Microsoft UWP apps should have already been tested and are compatible for their operation on Qualcomm Snapdragon. What makes this so interesting is that Intel has a very competitive 4.5-watt roadmap that enables fanless notebooks and 2-in-1 PCs. Intel has improved their 4.5-watt roadmap more than any one of their client computing products with the highest performance gains from generation to generation. Details about Intel’s sub-4.5 watt parts are not public, but right now, Intel holds 100% share of the 2-in-1 Windows PC market and a major piece of the Chromebook market. We cannot forget Intel's wireless moves. Intel racked up a shared, LTE design win on the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and just yesterday, AT&T announced its first 5G trial with Intel. Qualcomm, aside from Apple, currently has the most competitive sub-4.5 watt parts available for phones and tablets and Qualcomm is the market share leader in mobile SoCs. They are also the only company to have an integrated and modern modem on an SoC. There aren’t a lot of specific details available yet on exactly what Microsoft and Qualcomm will technically do differently, but there is undoubtedly a lot of development and testing required between now and 2H17 when both Microsoft and Qualcomm expect devices to ship. And you can be certain Intel isn’t standing still. I’m looking forward to the details on device experience, features, performance and compatibility. Isn’t competition grand? Wrapping up This year’s WinHEC was extremely busy for Microsoft and really gave us a good look into Microsoft’s plans for the future of the PC platform. Microsoft is doubling down on their partnerships with companies like Intel and Qualcomm and expanding their engagement in hardware. Microsoft is investing heavily in the mixed reality ecosystem and clearly wants to be a leader in the space rather than just a facilitator or a follower. They also quietly entered into a new business with their own data service to enable always connected experiences and are bringing ARM back to Windows once again in what Microsoft calls a “cellular PC”. Things are getting really interesting in the Microsoft universe and 2017 looks like it’s going to be one heck of a development year for the PC.
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.