Rumour: Microsoft working on Windows for ARM

British chip giant ARM could be getting the shot in the eponymous it needs to jump from the embedded market back onto the desktop, following reports that Microsoft is planning an ARM-compatible release of Windows.

The rumour comes from unnamed sources speaking to Bloomberg, who claim that the software giant is looking to pre-empt the predicted decline of x86 giant Intel and the return to the desktop of RISC pioneer ARM with a version of Windows that will run on the company's low-power chips - due, they claim, to launch at the Consumer Electronics Show early next month.

While Microsoft already has several ARM-compatible products, including the embedded computing Windows CE platform and the smartphone-oriented Windows Phone 7 platform, it's lacking a fully-fledged release of Windows that works on the ARM architecture. Should the predicted rise of ARM in the netbook, notebook, desktop, and server markets - all currently dominated by Intel - come to pass, that would leave Microsoft unable to supply operating systems for the new devices, and give open source rivals such as Linux the chance of a major foothold in the market.

The rumoured CES launch, however, hints that Microsoft might be looking at the short-term markets for now: since the launch of Apple's incredibly popular iPad, which features an ARM processor design at its heart, single-handedly kick started the tablet market - and it's a market that ARM is winning hands down.

While attempts at creating Windows 7-based tablets have been made, the relatively high power draw of Intel's Atom processors - the lowest power chips the company makes that are capable of running Windows 7 - compared to ARM's designs have resulted in bulky models with poor battery life.

A tablet based around an ARM process running Windows 7, however, promises the best of both worlds: the low power draw of ARM's chip designs means that it can be made slim and lightweight while still maintaining an impressive battery life, and the use of a fully-featured operating system addresses many of the drawbacks of Android and iOS based devices currently available.

The OS is only part of the story, of course: unless Microsoft implements some kind of hardware abstraction or emulation layer within the purported ARM-compatible Windows OS, special software packages will still be required in order to run on the ARM architecture. Standard applications, compiled for Windows on x86 architecture hardware, simply won't install - leaving users with a familiar operating system that won't play nicely with their favourite applications.

With CES just a few weeks away, we won't have long to wait to see if the rumours prove true - and whether Microsoft's announcement is truly an ARM-compatible Windows 7 OS, or merely a tablet-specific build of the cut-down Windows Phone 7 platform.