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Wintel: the end of an era?

Posted on 15 Apr 2011 at 15:07

Microsoft and Intel have jointly ruled the computing industry for 20 years. Jack Schofield examines whether the duopoly's days are numbered

Are we about to see the end of the Wintel hegemony? Or, worse for Microsoft and Intel, have we embarked on a revolution that will change the whole industry?

Ian Fogg, a UK-based analyst with Forrester Research, certainly thinks so. “Clearly what’s happening is a revolution, and it started in the smartphone market,” he said.

We’re living through a revolution in the way we use digital products

“We’re living through a revolution in the way we use digital products. It’s broader than the phone market, broader than the PC market, and affects all of our connected devices, including eBook readers, tablets, TV sets and even cameras.”

It’s happening very quickly, too. “How does the phone you use today compare with the one you had ten years ago?” asked Ian Drew, ARM’s executive vice president of marketing.

You might have gone from a text-only Nokia 8110 “banana phone” – considered cool when it was featured in The Matrix – to an Apple iPhone 4 or an HTC Desire. Your PC, by contrast, might still be running the same ten-year-old operating system, Windows XP, launched in 2001.

This isn’t to knock the PC business, which has been dominated by Microsoft and Intel since 1981, when IBM chose their products – Intel’s 8088 processor and Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system – for the IBM Personal Computer.

Today’s Windows 7 and second-generation Core processors are dramatically more powerful than the versions that were available a decade ago; but unlike mobile phones, they still perform the same basic functions.

So where does Wintel go from here? In ten years’ time, will we still be running versions of Windows NT/XP on variants of today’s Intel x86-compatible PCs?

Tablet turnaround

The question took on a new urgency at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At a press conference on 5 January, Windows boss Steven Sinofsky announced support for system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures, not only from Intel and AMD, but also from ARM.

ARM dominates the smartphone market, and looks set to dominate the rapidly emerging market for tablets too.

Following the success of Apple’s iPad in 2010, around 100 tablets were shown at CES, many of them running Google’s Android operating system on ARM chips.

By showing Windows and Office running on ARM, Microsoft clearly signalled that it wants to compete for a slice of this market, and that it doesn’t think that supporting Atom – the x86-compatible chip that Intel designed to compete against ARM – is enough.

Microsoft’s move to ARM might look like it’s stabbing its old partner in the back, but this is by no means the first time Microsoft has supported alternatives to Intel’s x86 architecture.

It’s tried several times before, but the difference this time is that Microsoft isn’t merely hedging its bets by backing a processor that may be successful, as it did with DEC’s Alpha or IBM’s PowerPC.

More likely, Microsoft is simply following its customers: many Wintel PC manufacturers, including Dell, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, are already using ARM chips such as Nvidia’s Tegra and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon in their products. Microsoft may simply have concluded that, at this point, ARM 
is unstoppable.

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User comments


By gavmeister on 16 Apr 2011

"Your PC, by contrast, might still be running the same ten-year-old operating system, Windows XP, launched in 2001."

When was the last time OSX had a radical overhaul.

I'd say never. Oh it gets tweaked a bit here and there but has it changed in the way that XP changed into Win7?

And OSX desktop was released in 2001 as well.

By Lacrobat on 17 Apr 2011

OSX got it right first time

So it doesn't need the constant overhaul of the NT based family. iOS, the worlds most successful hand-held OS, is based on the same microkernel Unix foundation. As to XP changing into win7 all they did was make it look more like OSX - the really innovative features were dropped during the development process.
By the way, I'm not an Apple fan, their OS is a superb piece of engineering but their business model sucks for anybody who want any sort of freedom to choose. So I'm stuck with Windows 7 and all it's shortcomings but still hopeful that wintel will collapse so we can have some genuine innovation.

By milliganp on 18 Apr 2011

Not Apple/ARM ...

The main threat to Wintel is not Apple+ARM, it is Google+ARM. We should not be mesmerised by Apple's current dominance in smartphones and tablets - it is simply not interested in the mass market long term. It will be quite happy to tune its price premiums to keep its market share around 10% as it has none in the PC market for years.
My prediction is that Google/ARM will do to Wintel what Wintel did to the likes of IBM, DEC and Sun - come into the market under them and expand upward to eat their business completely. This will be very beneficial in opening the market because ARM has a fundamentally more open business model to Intel allowing the consumer brands to innovate at the silicon level. This will radically reduce prices.
The only spoiler here is the possibility that someone will simply buy ARM to get control of the IP. Competition regulators are probably not agile enough to spot this as an anti-competitive move.

By JohnAHind on 18 Apr 2011

This is a repeat article...

..."could it be all over for Windows?". A regular feature on PCPro and elsewhere. It's been repeated so many times that if it actually happens, we won't be expecting it because of the sheer volume of false alarms.

And in this case, (and as usual), the article ignores stuff that doesn't fit - like the netbook owners that initially went with Linux all rushing back to get XP.

By Torquemada on 20 Apr 2011

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