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Interview: Qualcomm's Miguel Nunes talks about what's next for Windows on ARM

Last week was Qualcomm's Snapdragon Technology Summit, and if you're a fan of Windows on ARM, there was a lot of exciting news. The firm announced the Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform, its first 7nm PC chip, meant to compete with a 15W Intel Core i5. It's also the first ARM chip to be supported by Windows 10 Enterprise, with Qualcomm also announcing a number of partners working on enterprise apps.

And while the Snapdragon 8cx tackles hardware performance, there was native software announced as well. Asphalt 9 is coming to native ARM64, but more importantly, Windows on ARM will get native support for browsers like Firefox and Chromium.

Following the keynote, I got a chance to sit down with Miguel Nunes, the senior director of product management that leads Qualcomm's Windows efforts. Nunes has a contagious enthusiasm for Windows on ARM, and the idea of bringing Windows 10 into a new era of mobility. Frankly, it was one of the most fun and engaging interviews I've ever done.

Rich: Is there anything that the Snapdragon 855 has that the 8cx does not?

Miguel: No. Well, we have different stuff. I can tell you what's different. Maybe that's the easiest way. On the 8cx, the CPUs are different, the memory is different. The memory interface is different so the memory controllers are completely different. The caches are different, the GPU is different, the I/O block is different, and then stuff like ISP is the same, DSP is the same, and the LTE modem is the same.

Rich: But what about 5G? That was a surprise. I looked the spec sheets over for both chipsets ahead of the event, and there was a lot of 5G mentioned for the 855, and there was no 5G mentioned for the 8cx.

Miguel: The reason we were a little lighter on 5G in our session is because we just leverage mobile, so they create the technology from a modem standpoint, we will take it as an option, but our primary driver…Like the modem, for us, isn't new. It's leveraging. The other stuff is new, and different. So for us, adding 5G to a PC is not a big deal.

Rich: Is it not a big deal?

Miguel: No. If I can put it in a phone, I can put it in a PC.

Rich: Right. I also noticed that when they showed the slide of 5G partners, Microsoft was not on there.

Miguel: Those were more device partners.

Rich: OK, that's fair. So, the 855 can have an integrated X50 modem or it could not.

Miguel: The X50 modem is separate.

Rich: It's separate, OK. They made it sound like there would be different SKUs.

Miguel: The integrated modem in the 855 is an LTE modem, and you attach a separate 5G modem.

Rich: So it's the same story with the 8cx then?

Miguel: It's exactly the same thing.

Rich: And then you could also use an X50 modem with an Intel chip?

Miguel: You would not easily be able to do that.

Rich: Not in the same way that you could with the X16 in the Surface Pro?

Miguel: You could…you could. Over time. There are a bunch of optimizations that go with the platform. So eventually, you will see 5G solutions for x86 as well, just like we do with the other modems. The X20, the X24. We create discrete modems too for that market.

Rich: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is Adobe. I feel like that's the last piece of the puzzle. You've got browsers now-

Miguel: They kind of have their own cycle of when they release new versions. They don't release new stuff very often.

Rich: Well…

Miguel: Except their cloud stuff

Rich: But it's all cloud stuff now, right?

Miguel: We have been having discussions with them, they have engaged. For them it's all about... they're just slow. The discussions are positive, but there's no hard commit date.

Rich: Also, these are lower powered machines. The 8cx was compared to a Core i5 U-series.

Miguel: True, and usually you need a ton of memory. If you want to use Adobe and you want a good experience, you can't put it on a 4GB machine.

Rich: It also depends on the app you're using though. You still wouldn't run Premiere Pro on the 8cx.

Miguel: That's fair.

Rich: And that brings me to my next question. Does Qualcomm aim to displace Intel completely in the PC market?

Miguel: No, I don't think so. A lot of people have asked me, why didn't we build an i7. Most people don't need an i7. Let's just be honest. We're looking at mobility and 95% of the market. 95% of the market needs the performance class of an 850 and an 8cx. We think that those two products are going to address the majority of the PC market's needs for mobile devices. We, at this stage - never say never - are not interested in going after desktops, we are not interested in going after big devices, gaming devices that have fans. That's just not our strength and it's honestly not where the volume is, and it's not where the mobility is going to resonate. Most of those devices are stationary. I'm not saying never. It's just not where we're strong today.

Rich: I could imagine Qualcomm disrupting the gaming PC market, because the gaming laptops we have now are very thick, they weigh about seven pounds, and Qualcomm could change that.

Miguel: That business for Intel is very profitable. It's not very high volume.

Rich: Obviously the U-series is the highest volume in premium.

Miguel: We've also seen the statistics on mobile gaming - did you see the statistics on day one or day two - mobile gaming is just flying. Mobile gaming is a $76B business. Mobile gaming. And so, I think you will see that mobile gaming is going to start to dominate because people are playing these casual games.

Rich: A lot of these mobile games aren't that casual anymore.

Miguel: They're not that casual anymore. They scale very well. Some of these guys, like we showed Asphalt 9, and they're like, "oh well Asphalt 9 runs on a phone". But it doesn't run the same. It's just like PUBG. You play PUBG on a phone vs on a PC, they're actually not the same. Same thing with any game. The game scales to the performance of the platform. So when you have higher performance, it's got better resolution, it's got higher frame rate, it's got more content, so these games are built to scale, even on a phone. If I put it on a low-end phone vs a high-end phone, it's not the same game. The game scales. The experience is much better on a high-performance machine. Even this mobile gaming stuff scales to these types of form factors. You're right. They're not that casual anymore. They’re full games.

Rich: Asphalt 9 was actually a surprise announcement today. What other games might we see come to Windows on ARM?

Miguel: Gaming is a little more complicated of a problem for us. The thing with games is that it's an ecosystem/timing problem. We had another partner that we were working with, very big gaming title, they weren't ready...yet. We'll get them soon.

Rich: Very big gaming title?

Miguel: Very big gaming engine. And games is a timing issue because gaming guys don't want to backport. You have to hit their cycle for the next game so they can get the native version. Go to a gaming guy and say you're going to port something, they move on. That's their business. Monetize and move on. A lot of them don't even maintain the old game anymore. So you have to hit the cycle of these games and when they refresh. So we think you'll see a lot more of these titles as the engines are ready; it's just the timing. It's not a complexity issue; it's all timing.

Rich: Another question that I have to ask - I don't really want to but I have to because people want to know - what about x64 emulation?

Miguel: You know, x64-

Rich: You could just say it's never going to happen.

Miguel: It's never going to happen. The reason is the performance would not be good. It's possible, but you wouldn't like the performance. And think about it. It's sort of counterintuitive, for the most part. If you want a 64-bit app, you usually want better performance. That's why you wrote the 64-bit app. Although sometimes that's not the case because some people write 64-bit apps and they don't do anything. But the primary reason for 64-bit apps like Adobe is because you want the memory, you want larger memory access, and you want the perf. So if the perf is going to be worse under emulation, then why do it? So we've focused on 64-bit true applications. We've got to get them more native, and it's really hard. The other thing is emulation, and I've been asked this as well, emulation has got this bad history. A lot of people have tried emulation and most of it has been terrible. Our emulation is actually not bad. The reason is because only the CPU is emulated. The GPU is not, and the rest of the system is 100% native. So when you access your storage, it's native. Those drivers run native. And so, less and less apps are becoming CPU-bound. When you run something, it really doesn't use the CPU as much anymore. Most of this stuff today is GPU-focused and GPU is native. It's not emulated.

Rich: For me personally, it's Chrome.

Miguel: The issue with Chrome, or any browser for that matter, is the way the emulation works, and Microsoft has a whole series on this on Channel 9. Emulation actually uses caching to speed things up. Browsers generate real-time content, so you can't cache a browser. And so basically you're dynamically fetching content all the time. Having said that though, I don't know if you've tried Chrome on this device [Lenovo Yoga C630]. Chrome on this device is a lot more usable than it was on the first-generation devices. There are some enhancements that we have done on the 850 to improve emulation.

Rich: What enhancements?

Miguel: Hardware enhancements. It's just the way the architecture works. The CPU architecture. But over time, people will hopefully go native. There will be a bunch of apps that are legacy apps

Rich: Browsers are the big ones.

Miguel: Browsers are the big ones. Most of the others and you can't really tell.

Rich: But I think most of us spend most of our time in the browser.

Miguel: Yea, that's why having Firefox and Chromium is gonna be great. And with Microsoft's announcement today, I guess that's the only two we need to worry about.

Rich: So does Chromium running on ARM64 automatically mean that Chrome ends up coming to ARM64 eventually?

Miguel: Yea. I mean, Google has a little bit of work to do on top of that, but it's not massive. Chrome does some stuff, and they change the color of the icon, but most of it is Chromium.

Rich: So what's next for Windows on ARM?

Miguel: I think you will see us focus heavily on trying to get products out. Channel diversification is important for us. OEM diversification is important for us. We have very active engagements from customers, not traditional PC OEMs, that can easily enter the PC space and introduce very attractive devices. They understand connectivity very well. They understand products very well. We will see a breadth of OEMs and portfolios, which is what we want.

Rich: So in Q3, when 8cx starts shipping, 850 devices will continue to come out. Do you anticipate one being more popular than the other?

Miguel: I think you will see them vary by price points.

Rich: And usually the lower price points are a little more popular?

Miguel: Not necessarily. I think you'll see different price points addressed in different markets. If you look at these devices, most of them have not penetrated emerging markets, because the price points aren’t there. An $800 device isn't gonna work in most of these markets. Most of them need sub-$500.

Rich: Is that what the 850 is aiming for? Sub-$500?

Miguel: We hope to enable sub-$500 devices across the board.

Rich: Are we going to see more tiers?

Miguel: You will see more tiers. You will definitely see more tiers.

Rich: I was a little curious as to why there wasn't like an 860. Rather than continuing with the 850, have an 855-based chip that ships at the same time.

Miguel: This market doesn't move that fast. On mobile, a phone can ship in six months. They can't ship a PC in less than a year. Their pace is slow. With new OEMs coming that move faster, maybe that pace will speed up. But the pace is slow, so we can't introduce too many things. And you know, the lifecycle of PCs is much longer. PCs survive for much longer than phones, typically about 18 months a SKU lives. And so we have to be careful not to cannibalize our own business.

Rich: How long do you think people will be able to use a Snapdragon PC? If I buy one today, can I keep this thing for five years like I can with an Intel PC?

Miguel: You could. I think you could. I think if anything, you'll see as more stuff starts to move to the cloud, you'll start to see your processing needs, even on a local device, start to diminish a bit.

Rich: I ask because usually, the cycle for buying a new PC is longer than with a phone.

Miguel: It is, and I think you're going to see that too. The reason people didn't upgrade their PC - I was one - is why? You're like, why do I care? Imagine if these form factors become cool, slick. People are going to want them. The new generation, they want everything connected, and it needs to look good. I actually think we will see a form factor evolution. I think it will take time, but I think the form factor that you think of as a PC today will change.

Rich: It has changed over the past five years since the Surface Pro was introduced.

Miguel: Yes, and I think you'll see more. I think you'll see more of that. And then you go, what is a PC? I almost sound like Apple.

Rich: Did you just quote Apple?

Miguel: I said PC! But I think the form factors will change.

Rich: What other form factors do you think we'll see?

Miguel: You know, I don't know. These dual-screen things are super interesting. I think they probably could come. You know, the challenge is I think you'll see two different products. I think you'll see products evolve like dual screens for a lot of content consumption. I think the challenge for dual screen type products is going to be input. The keyboard is what, 30 years old? And it's still the preferred method of input.

Rich: Do you think that changes though?

Miguel: I don't know. People have said voice is going to take over. I haven't seen that happen. I think there's a certain level of privacy. You don't want to talk to your devices and have everyone listen. Handwriting is interesting. Pens are interesting. I think pens could get to a level where it's actually your input device. If they get good enough, feeling like real paper, very accurate, and it feels natural. At some point, if this feels very natural to you, why do you need a keyboard? But it needs to get to the natural feeling where it feels like I can do everything with it. It's getting there. Pen can get there, but I don't think anything else can. Until then, I think keyboard is king.

Rich: Have you tried Lenovo's Yoga Book?

Miguel: I have. It's OK. I don't know. The only thing is I can't type on that thing. It just doesn't work for me. There's something about mechanical keys that you can't replace. It's just not the same. I think that taking an existing input and changing it slightly is going to be more difficult than using a new input method because you're always going to compare with what you had, and if it's a new input method, you're going to adapt, so I actually think that's going to be an easier transition. But still a difficult one, because people are stubborn and changing habits is difficult. I still see people walking around with one of these and a mouse. It's very common, just because it's what you're comfortable with. And then you think about it, like, hey you can touch the screen. You don't need a mouse! Just touch the screen where you want it to go! Because you're used to your device not having a touchscreen.

Rich: What's the next PC chip going to be called?

Miguel: We haven't figured it out yet-

Rich: 9cx? 8cy?

Miguel: Probably not.

Rich: 8cx Gen 2?

Miguel: Maybe. People ask why did we name it 8cx.

Rich: Yes, I think I've asked everybody that.

Miguel: We want people to know that this is different.

Rich: Without implying that it's better. The rumor was 1000, so if you called it that, the Android phone users would be like, "hey what the hell guys?"

Miguel: That's part of it. I'm just saying that we've settled as a company that 8 is premium. It's a company decision that 8 is premium. Within premium, you're going to get different products, right? So 8cx for us is the 8, which is premium, compute, extreme. If I did something else after 850 and it's on the 850, I'd probably call it 8c. It's not extreme. I just don't know what we'll do, to be honest. It may be a gen thing, we may rev something, but we want to state that 8 is premium, and if we went down a tier, you could see a 7c. We want the flexibility to say that we can go down in tiers and make sure that we let people know that this is a compute-focused product.

Qualcomm is doing a lot of exciting things right now, and it's moving fast. It's only been a year since the first Snapdragon 835 devices were introduced, and the Snapdragon 850 was announced six months later. Here we are six months after that and we're seeing the Snapdragon 8cx, its 7nm PC chipset.

After talking to Miguel Nunes, it's clear that there's a lot more to come. Key focuses moving forward will be getting more PCs out running ARM chipsets and getting native software to run on the platform. That includes a big gaming engine, which hasn't been revealed just yet.

One of the things I most wanted to ask was if Qualcomm wants to completely displace Intel. Now that it has a true competitor for a 15W U-series chip, what about a 45W H-series chip? What about desktop chips? As it turns out, Qualcomm isn't planning to take on those markets; it's just not their strong point. After all, a desktop doesn't need benefits like better battery life or 4G LTE.

There will be different tiers though. Moving forward, there are two tiers in the Snapdragon 850 and the 8cx. However, we can expect to see more going forward. Indeed, Qualcomm isn't done here, not by a long shot.

What's also interesting is that he hinted at non-traditional PC OEMs making PCs. Qualcomm's partners have historically included smartphone manufacturers, so bringing them on board in the PC market could change things up a bit.

When Nunes was presenting on stage, a friend texted me and compared his performance to that of Surface chief Panos Panay. One thing that both of them have in common is that there's a feeling that they genuinely care about what they're talking about, and that feeling is contagious. It's hard to sit down with Nunes and not get excited about the things he's talking about. Talking to Miguel was a pleasure, and I hope to do the same thing at next year's Snapdragon Technology Summit.

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