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Microsoft might get to take its last shot at the iPhone after all!

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Microsoft’s dream of making Windows a major player in is all but dead, with 1% overall market share.

Even top executives are signaling that the company is treating Windows 10 Mobile as more of an academic exercise than a serious product.

And yet a new report from ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley indicates that Microsoft could have something up its sleeve.

Microsoft is said to be working on a project, to be finished by late 2017, that would let full versions of Windows software run on an ARM processor — the same processor used in the vast majority of smartphones.

While that tech could be used on any Windows phone, this report just adds fuel to the idea that Microsoft is still secretly hard at work on the Surface Phone, the long-rumored device that the company had hinted would be a serious contender with Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone.

To understand why, it helps to know a little history.

Continuum

Windows 10 Mobile’s flagship feature is what Microsoft calls Continuum.

Basically, you can plug certain Windows phones like the Microsoft Lumia 950 or HP Elite x3 into a display, attach a mouse and keyboard, and use it like a computer. It works, but it’s limited to a few specially designed apps from Microsoft’s anemic Windows Store app market, including the mobile versions of Microsoft Office.

According to various reports and industry whispers over the past year or so, the Surface Phone’s breakthrough feature would be the ability to run any piece of Windows software while in that Continuum mode.

That would be a huge deal for large businesses, where the majority of work still gets done with PC software rather than apps. Given Microsoft’s well-documented ability to sell to those same big customers, it would indeed be a competitive threat to the iPhone, at least among professionals.

Microsoft Windows 10 Mobile Continuum in action.Microsoft

But it’s much easier said than done. Smartphones largely use ARM processors, which balance power consumption with performance. Even Apple put an ARM chip in its newest MacBooks to power the Touch Bar and is rumored to be considering a move to ARM for future MacBooks.

The problem is that Windows for PC, and thus Windows PC software, is designed to run only on Intel’s trademark x86 processor architecture. And facing competitive pressure from ARM and Qualcomm, Intel scuttled plans to build its next major smartphone chip, seemingly sinking the Surface Phone before it was even officially announced.

Emulation

What Microsoft is reportedly building is the next best thing to an Intel-powered phone, given the circumstances.

In technical parlance, what Microsoft is said to be building is an “emulator” — a way to trick a gadget into thinking it’s another gadget. It’s similar technology to what Nintendo is using with the NES Classic to get old games to run perfectly on a smaller, more modern console.

This emulator would essentially trick Windows software into thinking it’s running on an Intel processor, even if it’s actually running on an ARM-powered smartphone.

Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops use a secondary ARM processor for the Touch Bar.Getty

The drawback with emulation is power consumption, since it takes way more processor resources to run software in emulation than it would to run a proper app on that device. It’s one thing to run NES games from the ’80s in emulation — it’s another entirely to use powerful enterprise software, and it would drain any phone’s battery in a heartbeat.

But as Ars Technica’s Peter Bright notes, that’s not such a huge deal if you’re using the hypothetical Surface Phone in Continuum mode, since you would probably be plugged into the wall anyway.

The Surface Phone still isn’t a sure thing, especially given Microsoft’s recent hesitation to talk about any kind of plans for mobile. From a technology perspective, though, it seems that things are slowly but surely starting to come together, if and when Microsoft decides to take what could well be its last shot at mobile dominance.

Microsoft declined to comment.

/Business Insider

 

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