Intel, Microsoft's Wintel alliance faces test at IDF

As the tablet market booms, the decades-long Wintel relationship formed around PCs is crumbling.

The strength of the once-prosperous Wintel alliance could be tested at Intel's developer show next week as the chip maker and Microsoft adapt to a market shift from PCs to mobile devices such as tablets, analysts said this week.

The chip maker is expected to highlight new chips for laptops and tablets at the Intel Developer Forum, Sept. 13 to 15 in San Francisco. Intel will also share further details about ultrabooks, a new class of thin and light laptops, for which Microsoft will show its upcoming Windows 8 OS. But as the decades-long Wintel monopoly in the PC market crumbles under tablet pressure, Intel will try to stake a position in the mobile market by drumming up support for Linux-based OSes such as MeeGo and Google's Android, analysts said.

PC shipments have slowed down over the last few quarters amid growing interest in tablets. With that writing on the wall, Intel and Microsoft are cutting cords on their PC-era relationship to move with the market, analysts said. Microsoft has added support for ARM architecture with Windows 8, while Intel has expanded its commitment to Linux by developing its own MeeGo OS and porting Android to work with its tablet chips.

Ironically, IDF's dates also clash with Microsoft's BUILD conference, from Sept. 13-16 in Anaheim, California. Some analysts said that Intel and Microsoft would not usually compete for developer attention, but the collision of major conferences is a sign of the changing times.

The Wintel alliance made the PC great, but Microsoft and Intel seem to be headed in different directions to catch up with rivals in new markets such as tablets, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"There's still a lot of common interest in terms of the PC. However, Microsoft's move to support ARM-based systems clearly puts some stress on that relationship," Brookwood said. ARM processors are found on most smartphones and tablets today, and are considered more power-efficient than Intel's Atom chips.

Intel may use IDF to prove that its Atom chips can outperform ARM when running Android on tablets, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. Intel may show new Android tablets based on upcoming Atom chips to prove its point, Gold said.

Intel is also trying to build a developer base as it takes steps to fit into the emerging mobile markets, Gold said. Intel has virtually no presence in the tablet and smartphone markets, and needs to develop a software ecosystem to supplement its hardware, Gold said. Intel will be holding technical sessions for Android and Windows developers at IDF.

"What we're seeing is the Wintel monopoly falling apart as the market is moving another direction," Gold said. "The market is pushing [Intel and Microsoft] in different directions, but that doesn't mean they won't work together."

But the PC market isn't dead yet and will grow over the coming years, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. The Wintel alliance will manifest in the form of ultrabooks, which over years could develop into a market that blurs the lines between tablets and laptops.

"You are seeing Intel take steps to fit into the newer as well as older markets," McCarron said.

Intel will demonstrate ultrabooks running Windows 8, which will include a revamped touch-based user interface, said Insight 64's Brookwood. Tablets currently are ideal for content consumption, but Windows 8 ultrabooks could ultimately be interchangeably used as PCs or tablets to consume or create content, Brookwood said.

An Intel spokesman said a three-phase rollout for Ultrabooks will be detailed at the show, but did not provide further information. Some ultrabooks that have already been announced, such as Lenovo's IdeaPad U300S, form the first wave, and are based on Sandy Bridge microprocessors. Intel has said that the second wave of ultrabooks will reach consumers early next year and be based on upcoming Ivy Bridge chips, which are faster and more power-efficient than Sandy Bridge processors. The Ivy Bridge ultrabooks will get touchscreens that can swivel or slide out.

Intel at IDF may also share details on Haswell, the successor to Ivy Bridge, which will form the third wave of ultrabooks, reaching consumers in 2013. Intel has said the graphics engine integrated in Haswell will deliver greater performance than any current mobile discrete card while consuming just 15 watts of power.

Intel is on a trajectory to improving chips through manufacturing advances as it tries to catch up with ARM on power consumption. Intel will share more details about its manufacturing efforts to achieve improved performance and power efficiency on chips at IDF. The chip maker earlier this year introduced 3D transistors, which will make chips smaller and more power efficient. The transistors will be available in chips made using the 22-nanometer process, which should reach laptops early next year.

Intel is also expected to make announcements around integrated security offerings with McAfee, which is operating as a separate unit within Intel. Intel completed the US$7.68 billion acquisition of McAfee earlier this year.

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