Windows 10’s Continuum for Phones feature promises us a rather colorful future of computing, but it falls short in one critical aspect. It can’t run the desktop apps that majority of users expect and still use on their desktops. That, however, might change by late 2017. A combination of speculation and sources would have us believe that Microsoft might be rolling out its x86 emulation for ARM64 systems. In a nutshell, that means that Windows 10 Mobile phones and tablet might gain the ability to run “regular” win32 desktop apps by then.
The limitations imposed by Windows 10 Mobile on Continuum is both technical and arbitrary. On the one hand, Microsoft will naturally prefer users to switch to apps using its Universal Windows Platform (UWP), which are the only types of apps that can run in Continuum mode. At the same time, Windows 10 Mobile devices run on ARM-based processors, which aren’t directly compatible with x86 software, what Microsoft calls the legacy win32 apps.
There are two possible solutions to this. One is write apps, whether using UWP or not, that can be easily ported from x86 to ARM. There are quite a number of frameworks that allow that. The easier, but less efficient, solution would be to emulate the x86 platform on ARM, introducing a compatibility layer that would allow x86 software to run on ARM. Most of the time, however, it’s the reverse, with emulators running ARM software on x86.
That is what makes Microsoft’s “Cobalt” project interesting. It has previously made known that it is working on that x86 emulation for ARM64. It has only really been a question of when. According to a recent leak, that might happen next year and with a new codename: CHPE. That acronym might stand for “Cobalt”, “HP”, and “Emulation”.
It has earlier been rumored that Microsoft and HP are working on a consumer version of the Elite x3 smartphone. That particular model was aimed at businesses and allowed running desktop apps but only through a remote desktop solution. A consumer version wouldn’t have access to remote sources and would have to rely on running such x86 apps directly on the device. Or rather, indirectly through emulation. Of course, this rumor could once again reignite the Surface Phone discussion. How it all plays in practice, especially considering hardware constraints, is something we have yet to see.