Is the Microsoft-Intel marriage finally over?

This semi-split has been brewing for some time

Cringely here, reporting from CES in Vegas, where rude beasts walk the earth (at least, the ones that don't crawl or slither), impeded in their forward progress only by hip-deep mounds of tablet PCs. Everyone appears to be tapping, swiping, and gesturing on some kind of sleek black touch-sensitive device, when they're not squinting at blurry 3D screens waiting for their turn with the polarized glasses.

I slipped into town incognito to catch the goings-on at our industry's annual feeding frenzy, but the biggest conclusion I've come away with was something unexpected: Intel and Microsoft, the PC generation's answer to Brad and Angelina, are on the outs. If it's not exactly the end of an era, it's something awfully close. And all I can say is it's about friggin' time.

[ Out with the old and in with the new! Keep score with Cringely's 12 tech predictions for 2011. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

At the Sandy Bridge press conference, the words "Microsoft" and "Windows" were scarcely heard. Intel representatives were eager to show off products running Sandy Bridge (now known as the second-generation Intel core), like Google Smart TVs, set-top boxes from Boxee and Logitech, and a raft of tablets running Android and Meego, a Linux-based OS developed jointly by Intel and Nokia.

How about Windows 7 tablets? I asked a demo dude in Intel's booth.

Of course, there will be Windows 7 tablets too, he answered. Next question.

I can't remember the last time anyone from Intel had to be prompted to endorse its partner in Wintel crimes.

Microsoft, of course, chose CES as the venue to introduce the first version of Windows to run on a processor based not on the Intel architecture but rather on ARM-based system-on-a-chips manufactured by TI, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. Yes, Intel was also mentioned, but it clearly got second billing. That's also new.

It's as if they both decided to stay together for the sake of the kids while quietly seeing other people.

This semi-split has been brewing for some time. I recall a meeting back in the last century arranged by two Intel engineers with no media relations person in tow. That in itself was exceedingly odd, but it got stranger. Their apparent purpose: to demonstrate the lengths to which algorithms built into Intel's Pentium chips had compensated for the completely cockeyed way Windows loaded itself each time at startup. The implicit message: See what we have to put up with?

Microsoft, meanwhile, found itself on the wrong end of a class-action suit a few years ago, thanks in part to a truckload of embarrassing emails detailing how it had tweaked its "Vista capable" sticker program to include machines sporting an inferior Intel graphics chipset because Intel couldn't produce the actual "Vista capable" chipset in time. That had to stick in Ballmer's craw.

Like parents trying not to worry the kids, though, an Intel spokesperson denied there was anything amiss: "The Intel and Microsoft relationship remains strong. As more devices and machines go online, it makes sense for Microsoft to expand its offerings, just as Intel has with MeeGo, our Atom chips and work with Google on Chrome optimization and other areas."

The once mighty Wintel cartel has been good in many ways for the PC industry. Like industrious worker bees on amphetamines, Intel's engineers pushed Moore's law to the max, cranking out generation after generation of processors, each smaller and more powerful than the last. Microsoft obliged by churning out new operating systems, each more bloated and resource intensive than the last. We were all forced into a three-year refresh cycle just to keep our productivity from turning to sludge. Though frustrating for users, that kept hardware demand high and the industry humming.

But it's a brave new mobile world out there now, and both Microsoft and Intel have had a hard time adjusting to it. Nobody wants a resource-hogging, app-pathetic operating system on their sleek touchy new devices. That's why -- if rumors hold true -- HP will introduce a Palm OS-based tablet later this month, a little more than a year after Ballmer demonstrated a Windows-powered HP slate at, yes, CES. (Oh, snap!)

They also want small, intensely powerful chips that don't suck down huge amounts of battery life. I have no doubt Intel will get there, eventually, but so far it's allowed itself to be lapped by more nimble competitors.

The Wintel era appears to be history, even if neither party will openly admit it. Frankly, it will be better for Microsoft and Intel, who are both in desperate need of serious competition. But it's especially good news for the rest of us.

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Robert X. Cringely

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