Wintel: the end of an era?

Wintel

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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