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Microsoft needs to make an x86 phone

By Adam Z. Lein March 18, 2016, 11:24 am

Seriously, why hasn’t this happened yet? If you don’t know what I mean by an x86 phone, all PCs, Macs, most Linux servers, and Windows tablets run on x86 compatible architectures making it easier for software to evolve over time with lots of backwards compatibility. Most Android, iOS, and Windows Phone devices run on ARM compatible architectures which can’t run the same software as all of the other PCs of the world. The x86 architecture has grown and been refined over the years to keep up with modern technology since its introduction in 1978. It’s time for this architecture to take over on smartphones too.


Windows 10 Mobile has this cool new feature called Continuum where if you plug in a large display via a wired adapter or wirelessly over Miracast, then you’ve got a full Windows 10 style interface. All of your universal windows apps on the phone suddenly have full desktop-style user interfaces that are exactly the same as if you’d launch those apps on a real desktop Windows 10 computer. Well, you can’t change the window sizes or snap them to different edges, but you still get to take full advantage of that large screen real estate. So we’re close, but Windows 10 Mobile has the same limitations as the failed Windows RT… It’s stuck working on ARM processors that can’t run all of the gabillion x86 compatible Windows programs that everyone has been using since the previous century.

On the other hand, we have plenty of really inexpensive small Windows tablets that are only a little bigger than some of the popular Phablets out there, and these devices are totally capable of running the real x86 programs that have been in development for 30 years. Full Microsoft Office totally runs on a $70 Windows tablet with an Intel Atom processor and 1Gb of RAM. I’m typing this in OneNote 2016 (which alone is more powerful than any app I’ve seen on iOS or Android) right now on a $199 Dell Venue 8 Pro that fits in my coat pocket.

My tiny thin 8" tablet runs some of the most powerful software around.
My tiny thin cheap 8″ tablet runs some of the most powerful software around.

Why can’t this have a cell phone radio in it?

The age of small one-hand usable phones is probably over for now. None of the current smartphones out there can really be used efficiently while holding them in one hand. So why not carry a full Windows computer around? Might as well, right? Of course, I’d want to use a Bluetooth headset (or my Bluetooth motorcycle helmet, or my Bluetooth car stereo) with the device for the completely hands-free voice controlled user interface. That’s the only type of wearable hardware interface that really makes sense, although a Windows app that interfaces with a Bluetooth fitness tracker or smartwatch would need to be developed too. Microsoft is kind of behind on that in not having a universal Windows 10 app for Microsoft Health. Windows 10 does have phone and messaging apps built in though! They just don’t work with any phone hardware yet which doesn’t exist anyway.

Remember when HTC made a mobile Windows Vista PC that could make phone calls?
Remember when HTC made a mobile Windows Vista PC that could make phone calls? (It was called the HTC Shift.)

Make Windows 10 run on everything

This seems to be something Microsoft is trying to do, but clearly isn’t there yet. The desktop x86/x64 version of Windows 10 is still completely different from the Windows 10 Mobile operating system running on ARM based phones. The start screens are still very different with very different customization options (though not as different as they were in the Windows 8 days.) Windows 10 desktop can’t put live tiles into folders like the phone can. Windows 10 desktop’s live tiles can’t be transparent with a background image, nor do they animate the same way as the mobile version. There are many inconsistencies like this.

It’s time to make Windows 10 the same for everything… just with a responsive UI that makes rearranges things depending on your screen size and input devices. We’re already doing this with responsive website designs that automatically rearrange themselves based on your screen size… and that’s the whole premise of Universal Windows Apps on Windows 10. It makes sense that Windows 10 should do this too as an operating system. The x86/x64 version already kind of does this when you switch between the tablet UI and desktop UI. It just needs some more options for a phone UI and an Xbox UI.

Windows 10 phones should do more too.
Windows 10 phones should do more, too.

Really the only difference between Windows 10 versions should be which processor architectures they support. Windows NT was very similar to that back in the 90’s when in addition to x86 compatible processors, it also supported IBM Power PC, MIPS, and DEC Alpha processors. Windows RT revisited this kind of processor independence in 2011 when Windows 8 was made to run on ARM CPUs.


There are rumors that Microsoft’s Surface team (which now includes what’s left of the Nokia Mobile device and Lumia team) is working on an x86 compatible smartphone. This could be just what Microsoft needs to turn smartphones into the new desktop computer. If you think a modern smartphone isn’t powerful enough to run real x86 programs like Office, or Photoshop, or Premiere, let me boot up my 200Mhz Pentium II Windows NT 4 machine with 196Mb of RAM. The version of Outlook 98 I have running on that is still a far more powerful email, contact, calendar, and task management program than anything available on iOS, Android, or Windows Phone.

Would you want a phone that can load a full Windows 10 style interface when you connect it to a larger nearby display? Or even be able to manually choose “desktop mode” on your phone’s 5-7″ screen in order to run real software like Outlook 2016, Microsoft Access, or Visual Studio? How about multiple web browsers like FireFox and Chrome along with Edge?


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