Reading my RSS and Twitter feeds Tuesday night, I turned to a tech writer friend and said, “the Wintel Era just ended, and half of these people are fighting over whether demo tablets should have fans.”
If you don’t know, “Wintel” is the shorthand for Intel processors plus Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Working together, Microsoft and Intel broke IBM’s hold on computing, used standards and interoperability to make “PC-compatible” a thing, relegated Apple to a tiny fraction of the market (until it, too, adopted Intel processors), and then defined and dominated the personal computing industry — or at least its desktop and laptop portions — for the better part of the past twenty years.
Now, Wintel as a platform hasn’t exactly ended. Windows 8, like older versions of Windows that will likely remain with us for decades, will still run on Intel and compatible x86 processors. But Windows 8 will also run on ARM’s alternate system-on-a-chip architectures. These chips have become nearly as dominant in mobile and ultraportable machines as Intel’s are in traditional laptops and desktops. Windows’ ARM compatibility was first announced in January, but is news again because of Microsoft’s continued unveiling of Windows 8 details (including a full developer preview, already downloaded 500,000 times) at its BUILD developer conference.
ARM-optimized builds will make it easier to run Windows 8 on tablets, or in any other form factor where power consumption and mobility are at a premium. Between Intel and ARM, Windows will really be able to run just about everywhere, in any kind of form factor, without much drop-off in features or performance. Anyways, that’s the target and the hope.
Intel will in turn partner with Google to pair Intel x86 processors with Android. This itself isn’t a surprise — Intel had to make a move to more mobile operating systems sooner or later, and Android is probably the most popular and easily adaptable mobile OS in the world right now.
Still, because Windows 8’s and Android’s roots are now growing into overlapping territory, this means Intel and Microsoft are both now openly teaming up with direct competitors to the other Wintel partner. It’s pragmatism, sure; but it’s also yet another signal that the old rules don’t hold any longer. GigaOm’s Ryan Kim keys in on this in “Microsoft, Intel chart separate paths in the post-PC era“:
“The fact is that mobile devices, wireless broadband and the cloud are changing what we expect computers to do,” Kim writes. “And the old paradigm of powerful laptops and desktops leading the way increasingly doesn’t make as much sense with consumers, who are embracing these new computing models.”
Nor have we exhausted how those new models will continue to evolve. Two years ago, before the iPad became a smash success, the only industry executives openly breathless in their enthusiasm about tablet computing were, ironically, at Microsoft.
Two years from now, it’s perfectly likely that yet another form factor still may be the personal computing and consumer electronics growth market du jour. Google and Intel first teamed up, as Kim notes, to work on Google TV. Microsoft jumped from Intel’s to a competitor’s chips (IBM’s PowerPC) when it moved from the original Xbox to Xbox 360. Windows 8 arguably borrows as much from Xbox 360 — including Xbox Live’s entire gaming and media platform — as it does Windows Phone 7.
It’s not just about smartphones; it’s not just about mobile. It’s about a broad range of devices, some of which may not exist yet, but might exist as early as Windows 8’s proper launch in 2012. Tablet computing might be the first market where Windows + ARM and Android + x86 cross paths, but it won’t be the last.