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The Wintel hegemony in the PC industry may be ebbing

Posted: 07.11.11

With announcement at CES by Microsoft that Windows 8 will run on ARM, thereby enabling another processor to run Microsoft applications, the world shifted. That was the promise with Windows NT back in 1993 when Microsoft declared it would run on the popular processors of the time which were Alpha, AMD64, IBM, Intel MIPS, and Motorola. That didn’t quite happen.

Now Microsoft seeing the extraordinary growth of ARM-based mobile phones, and having tried three times to get into that market, has declared that Windows 8 and associate applications (like the Office suite) will run on ARM, and x86. So far MIPS is not in the club.

The idea of using ARM processors for notebooks, desktops, and even servers has been bubbling up for the past year. Some companies have already declared ARM-based servers (running Linux) and Qualcomm has demonstrated netbook like devices they called Smartbooks using an ARM processor.

However, the main thing that has always killed such experiments has been the lack of a unified applications suite—a seamless experience on any platform. That means the APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) too, and especially DirectX and .net. DNLA (Digital Living Network Alliance), and other stacks are also needed. Microsoft says we are going to have that kind of a world in late 2012.

This brave new world will allow us to send a Word file from our San Francisco based quad-core Intel i7 to our colleague in Singapore who has an AMD Fusion-based machine. They will edit it and send it to folks in Bangalore who will further enhance it on their ARM-based HP notebook which runs Windows 8 also. They will then send it back to us in San Francisco and we’ll be able to read it perfectly as if we had done it all on our own machine. Another colleague in Paris will also read the file, which she has obtained from the cloud where it has been stored. She will read it on her tablet, and also make a few annotations.

Different machines, different locations, cloud I/O, and it all works. The application becomes the focus—not the machine it is created, read, stored, or edited on—it’s the application stupid.

Apple had this idea about a decade ago except for them the model was the file. Follow and use the file—don’t worry about the application, the OS and other tools will figure out which application is best for the file you want to work with, and the choice of the application may be based on whether you want to simply read it or edit it.

So who cares what processor is running the OS? Who even cares where or what the application is?

Tom and Mary are at Dixon’s looking at computers for their son who is going to boarding school in the fall—they grin a lot about that, free at last, but that’s a another story. Tom likes the blue computer, but Mary is partial to the yellow one. A friendly salesman comes over and asks if he can help. “What applications will Master Thomas be using in school,” he asks. They tell him and he then shows them the green computer which they both seem to like. “And, it’s only 500 quid,” he says, “VAT included.” Tom and Mary leave the shop delighted with their purchase and haven’t a clue about what processor is in it. And even though there’s a big sign on the side of the box declaring ARM Inside they couldn’t give a give a wit, they’re off to buy a train ticket for Thomas.

Sound far fetched? Maybe but I think AMD, Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm have their marketing work cut out for them. Just a side note: Some of the carriers who are selling LG and Motorola mobile phones were surprised to find that consumers were coming in asking for the Nvidia phone. Not the Verizon phone or the Motorola phone, or the Android phone, but the Nvidia phone. That’s how powerful Nvidia’s brand is and how many loyal customers it has.

Can that level of brand loyalty be maintained when the hardware is no longer the differentiator? No one goes into a car dealer and says I’d like a car with the Weston engine in it. No one buys a dishwasher and asked for the one with GE motor in it. Sure as hell no one buys a TV and says give me the one with STMicro chip in it. How come? Because they are consumer products and not sold on technical features, they’re sold on color, style, and end-user brand. So is the Nvidia phone phenomenon a blip? No other chip company has consumers asking for a phone with chip inside.

What happens to AMD’s Vision, and Intel’s Inside, and ARM’s ah, well whatever ARM uses? Here comes one of those inflection points the marketing folks like to talk about—I wonder if everyone is ready for this one.