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Technically speaking, users who have jumped into Apple’s new M1 Macs don’t really have a legitimate way to run Microsoft Windows, but it looks like that will soon change — and in a very unexpected way.
Windows has always been tied directly to Intel’s x86 architecture, while Apple’s M1 chip is ARM-based. Apple made it clear from the outset that Boot Camp wouldn’t be supported, and while there are perfectly valid ways to run Windows apps on an M1 Mac, installing the entire native Windows operating system requires some workarounds that aren’t really intended for production use.
The key challenge is that even though Microsoft does have an ARM-based version of Windows, you can’t actually buy that version on its own. Instead, it’s an “OEM version” that’s designed for use on specialized devices that use Qualcomm’s ARM chips, such as Microsoft’s own Surface.
That said, popular virtualization app developer Parallels was quick to jump on creating an M1 version, which allows you to virtualize the full ARM version of Windows 10. The catch is that you have to sign up for Microsoft’s Windows Insider program to get your hands on it — it’s essentially a version for developers and testers to play with.
Until recently, it also wasn’t possible to run Intel-based x64 apps on the ARM version of Windows, although Microsoft has recently addressed that in the latest builds.
Ultimately, however, the Windows Insider ARM version is not licensed for everyday use. It’s great to play around with, but there’s no easy way to officially activate it, so you won’t be able to personalize it or get updates or support, and sooner or later, it will start nagging you for activation.
Enter Windows 365
It’s hard to say whether Microsoft will ever release a consumer version of Windows for M1 Macs, but considering that you have to hack Windows 11 to get it to run even on an Intel Mac, we’re not holding our breath.
In reality, however, it looks like Microsoft may be taking an entirely different approach to allow users to run Windows on non-Intel devices — offering it as a web app.
After all, if it’s good enough for Microsoft’s Xbox game streaming services, there’s really no reason you shouldn’t be able to run the entire Windows operating system in Safari, and this week Microsoft announced that it’s doing just that.
According to a new blog post by Wangui McKelvey, General Manager for the Microsoft 365 cloud suite, the company will be expanding its cloud offerings with Windows 365 — a cloud-based version of Windows 10 (and Windows 11 later this year) that will stream the “full Windows experience” into your web browser.
Windows 365 takes the operating system to the Microsoft Cloud, securely streaming the full Windows experience—including all your apps, data, and settings—to your personal or corporate devices. This approach creates a fully new personal computing category, specifically for the hybrid world: the Cloud PC.Wangui McKelvey, General Manager, Microsoft 365
At this point, Windows 365 is being launched strictly as a solution for businesses, and like Office 365 it will undoubtedly be a subscription-based offering since Microsoft still has to run all the back-end server infrastructure.
Depending on how Microsoft chooses to license Windows 365, however, it’s likely that consumers may still be able to take advantage of it simply by purchasing a single-user subscription.
After all, many of Microsoft’s other business-focused services, like Exchange Online for email, already offer single-user pricing, and Microsoft says that it’s launching this service “to organizations of all sizes,” which should in theory include organizations of one.
The key to Windows 365, however, is its cross-platform compatibility, and McKelvey specifically calls out not only the Mac, but also the iPad, as devices that will be able to take advantage of running Windows in the browser.
Windows 365 provides an instant-on boot experience that enables users to stream all their personalized applications, tools, data, and settings from the cloud across any device including your Mac, iPad, Linux device, and Android.Wangui McKelvey, General Manager, Microsoft 365
Essentially, what Microsoft plans to do here is to offer each user a “Cloud PC” that runs on the back-end, with a browser like Safari simply acting as a window into the experience. Users will also be able to customize their cloud PC with up to 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM, presumably at different pricing tiers.
To be clear, this isn’t even really a new idea — “thin-client” systems like this have been used in the Enterprise for over 20 years through cloud computing technologies like Citrix. However, this is the first time that Microsoft is actually offering the entire Windows experience as a turnkey solution that customers can easily sign up for without the need to build out their own infrastructure.
Microsoft has already piloted rolling out Windows 365 with the government of Nunavut, a large and remote territory in Canada’s far north. It will be available for all organizations on August 2, 2021, with two tiers: Windows 365 Business and Windows 365 Enterprise. Pricing has not yet been announced.