generative AI, GenAI, AI regulation

Microsoft is planting its flag in the expanding AI PC space with its Copilot+ PCs, systems that will give users a range of generative AI capabilities not only in their Surface laptops, but also others being developed by the likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo and Acer.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and other executives unveiled the new category of PCs at an event May 20 – the day before the vendor’s Build developer conference kicks off – adding the weight it already carries with the continued dominance of the Windows operating system and the presence it has as a public cloud provider into an AI PC market that promises to grow quickly in the coming years.

“Copilot+ PCs will enable you to do things you can on any other PC,” Yusuf Mehdi, executive vice president and consumer chief marketing officer at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post. “Easily find and remember what you have seen in your PC with Recall, generate and refine AI images in near real-time directly on the device using Cocreator, and bridge language barriers with Live Captions, translating audio from 40+ languages into English.”

The Copilot+ PCs are part of a larger trend within the still-emerging generative AI space to push as much AI computing capabilities out to the devices that are generating massive amounts of data. At the Dell Technologies World 2024 show this week in Las Vegas, CEO Michael Dell and other company executives have argued that for data sovereignty and security reasons – as well as to reduce costs – AI technologies must move to where the data is being created rather than workloads being shipped to the public cloud.

That includes not only bringing AI to PCs but also to smartphones and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

“Copilot+ PCs leverage powerful processors and multiple state-of-the-art AI models, including several of Microsoft’s world-class SLMs [small language models], to unlock a new set of experiences you can run locally, directly on the device,” Mehdi wrote. “This removes previous limitations on things like latency, cost and even privacy to help you be more productive, creative and communicate more effectively.” 

A Booming Market

Analysts with market research firm Canalys is predicting that about 48 million AI-capable PCs will ship worldwide this year, which will account for 18% of all the PCs shipped. However, they wrote that this is the beginning of what called a “major market transition,” with more than 100 million AI PCs shipping in 2025 – which will make up 40% of the market – and 205 million shipping in 2028.

“PCs with dedicated on-device AI capabilities will enable new and improved user experiences, driving productivity gains and personalizing devices at scale while offering better power efficiency, stronger security and reduced costs associated with running AI workloads,” wrote Ishan Dutt, principal analyst at Canalys. “This emerging PC category opens new frontiers for both software developers and hardware vendors to innovate and deliver compelling use cases to customers across consumer, commercial and education scenarios.”

Microsoft’s Mehdi wrote that “this first wave of Copilot+ PCs is just the beginning. Over the past year, we have seen an incredible pace of innovation of AI in the cloud with Copilot allowing us to do things that we never dreamed possible. Now, we begin a new chapter with AI innovation on the device.”

He argued that Microsoft has “completely reimagined the entirety of the PC – from silicon to the operating system, the application layer to the cloud – with AI at the center, marking the most significant change to the Window platform in decades.”

Enter the NPU

Like some other AI PCs, the Copilot+ architecture includes not only CPUs and GPUs, but also NPUs (neural processing units), which are key to enabling such systems to run AI workloads locally. Microsoft is working with chipmakers like Qualcomm, AMD, and Intel to make this happen.

Qualcomm leveraged what it acquired via its $1.4 billion acquisition of Nuvia in 2021 to continue growing the capabilities in its Snapdragon line, putting it in position to take advantage of the nascent AI PC trend three years later, according to Daniel Newman, CEO of analyst firm Futurum.

The latest chips from Qualcomm are impressive and sure to spark competition from Intel, AMD, and Apple, Newman said.

“It will drive more innovation and benefits for the consumer,” he said. “Also, you have to expect Nvidia to make a real move here. Maybe not a NPU, but you just have to feel that [Nvidia co-founder and CEO] Jensen [Huang] and his team are working on something here. Race is on.”

The Copilot+ devices are connected to large language models (LLMs) that are running in the company’s Azure cloud, along with SMLs, which Mehdi wrote are helping to give the systems significant performance and other advantages over systems from Apple, which also is working to give its MacBook Air and other systems AI capabilities. The Copilot+ systems are as much as 20 times more power and 100 times more efficient for running AI workloads than rival PCs and are 58% better than MacBook Air 15” in sustained multithread performance, according to Microsoft. They also come with all-day battery life.

Copilot+ PCs have minimum standards they have to meet, including having a NPU with performance of at least 40 TOPS (trillions of operations per second). They also need to have at least 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

Adobe Signs On

Along with Microsoft features such as Recall, Cocreator and Live Captions, many of Adobe’s mainstay apps – including Photoshop, Lightroom, and Express – also will appear immediately in Copilot+ PCs, with other software like Illustrator and Premiere Pro coming in the summer. Each system also will come with an AI assistant that will run directly on the PC.

Medhi reportedly said during the event that he expects 50 million AI PCs will be bought over the next year. However, none of this will be cheap. The Copilot+ PCs will hit the market June 18 with a starting price of $999, though Microsoft argued that the cost is $200 less than devices with similar specs.