Intel just put Qualcomm's Windows 10 plans on notice

Intel was never going to be pleased at Microsoft and Qualcomm's plans to run Windows 10 on Snapdragon processors, and now it's dropping heavy hints that it could all end up in court. The latest attempt to squeeze Windows on ARM into the mainstream, the announcement between the software giant and the mobile chipmaker will eventually see processors like the Snapdragon 835 running Windows 10 on models from ASUS, HP, Lenovo, and more. For consumers, that's only going to be a good thing. For Intel, not so much.

Windows 10 running on ARM silicon has some obvious advantages. For a start, there's power efficiency: Snapdragon chips are more commonly found in cellphones and tablets, where running frugally is especially essential. Meanwhile there's also native support for cellular connectivity, making it easy for ultrabook and tablet manufacturers to offer integrated 4G/LTE connectivity.

So, Qualcomm is promising "beyond all-day" battery life, fanless designs, and all the same Windows 10 features users demand – unlike the ill-fated Microsoft Surface running the cut-down (and subsequently discontinued) Windows RT. It can do that because of x86 chip emulation, effectively making an ARM processor behave like an x86 processor so that Windows 10 and its apps will run just as happily. That, unsurprisingly, has raised Intel's hackles.

In a lengthy article on innovation, Steven Rodgers and Richard A. Uhlig – executive vice president and general counsel for Intel Corporation, and Intel Fellow in Intel Labs and director of Systems and Software Research, respectively – first lay out the company's four decade development history. That dates back to 1978 and the Intel 8086, the processor at the heart of IBM's first Personal Computer. Since then, it's been built upon with high-performance memory for x86 systems, security and encryption enhancements, and more.

It's all preamble to a threatening chaser. "Intel invests enormous resources to advance its dynamic x86 ISA," the pair write, "and therefore Intel must protect these investments with a strong patent portfolio and other intellectual property rights." Pointing out that Intel holds more than 1,600 worldwide patents around instruction set implementations, the execs explain that emulation has proved the downfall of other firms in the past.

That list includes United Microelectronics Corporation, AMD, Cyrix, Chips and Technologies, Via Technologies, and Transmeta Corporation. The latter, which shut up shop ten years ago, claimed to have a patent-bypassing way of emulating x86, Intel says. Even so, it still successfully enforced its patent portfolio against it.

Although Qualcomm isn't mentioned by name, it's clear who has raised Intel's hackles. "Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel's x86 ISA will meet a different fate," Rodgers and Uhlig conclude, though you can bet Qualcomm's legal team isn't planning to leave things for fate to decide. The first Windows 10 on Snapdragon computers are expected to arrive in Q4 this year; the first lawsuits probably won't be long after.