Because Intel and Microsoft are nearly joined at the hip when it comes to supplying chips and the operating system for desktop and laptop computers, there has been much speculation about the future of the companies' partnership since Microsoft announced the next generation of Windows will also support the same ARM processors that are widely used in smartphones and tablets.
In all likelihood, though, the Intel/Microsoft partnership will have to stay strong for the companies to make a dent in the emerging market for touch-screen devices, which both change the way users interact with computers and provide longer-lasting batteries than most desktops. But these efforts are just getting started, the Intel executive charged with leading the chipmaker's newly formed tablet and netbook division said in an interview this week.
Intel chips will be in tablets running multiple operating systems, including Android, but the ones available at retail today are mainly Windows-based devices, said the Intel executive, corporate Vice President Doug Davis. But he acknowledges that Windows is not, at least yet, ideally suited to the tablet age.
"For the average user who wants to use finger touch and multi-touch, the Windows 7 touch environment doesn't support that very well," Davis said.
Windows does, however, work well with several "hybrid" use cases that involve a combination of keyboard and touch, stylus and touch, or all of the above, he said. "It depends on how you want to use it," Davis said. "We're seeing a number of instances where there are Windows-based tablets developed for certain types of usage, that are a great solution."
Davis said he can't speak for Microsoft, but noted that Microsoft's public statements indicate the company is working on adapting the next generation of Windows for touch-based computing.
"What I understand is they're taking the Windows 7 basic architecture and they're adapting it to extend beyond PCs and into other devices," he said. "The way I interpret that is they're creating more scalability in that baseline operating system."
Microsoft unveiled numerous Windows 7-based tablets at this month's Consumer Electronics Show, including an Acer ICONIA (powered by Intel Core i5) with two 14-inch touch screens, and others with slide-out or Bluetooth keyboards.
These tablets seem to assume that users won't be able to fully ditch the physical keyboard, perhaps because navigating the Windows start menu could be cumbersome on a touch-screen device. Presumably, future versions of Windows will allow a keyboard-less experience along the lines of an iPad or Android tablet. Microsoft has resisted calls to adapt Windows Phone 7 to tablets, saying the mobile OS is designed for smartphones only.
Intel branching out
Just as Microsoft plans support for both Intel and ARM chips, Intel's plans for tablets extend beyond Windows. There are no Intel-based smartphones yet, but nine Intel- and Windows-based tablets are on the market today, including one - the ViewSonic ViewPad100 - that supports both Windows and Android.
"In addition to Intel tablets available today, Intel currently has more than 35 design wins based on the upcoming 'Oak Trail' Intel Atom processor, with companies including Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Fujitsu, Asus and Cisco preparing tablets with either the Windows or Android operating systems," Intel said in an e-mail to Network World. "The Oak Trail processors are in production now and are expected to be seen in over 100 new netbook, tablet and hybrid designs in the first half of 2011."
Davis said Intel will differentiate itself from ARM with an architecture that makes it easier for applications to run on many different devices and operating systems, and that this ability will prove important in hybrid devices. Beyond Windows and Android, Intel is working with the Linux-based MeeGo. "We can support various operating systems that customers want to design with," he said. Further, he said, "the ability to take applications and use them across a range of devices on Intel architecture is a given. That's the value proposition we've had for 35 to 40 years. That won't be the same when you're looking at ARM devices from different companies."
In response to growing customer demand for tablets, Intel formed the netbook and tablet group last month. Davis, who is general manager of the new group, said the technologies it covers were previously under the PC client division. There is a third Intel group that focuses on smartphones.
"We just recognized as the types of companion computing devices evolve, we wanted to apply more focus and resources, put more attention on it and be more deliberate," he said. "Netbooks are here to stay, and tablets are here to stay."
While Intel has much work to do on the tablet front, it's done quite well on netbooks with the Intel Atom processors, designed for mini-notebooks and long battery life. Although Intel's more powerful desktop processors are also popping up in tablets, such as the Acer ICONIA, Intel will focus most of its tablet and netbook efforts on Atom. "You really should expect that in netbooks and tablets, they will be predominantly Atom-based devices, because it delivers the right performance-per-watt," Davis said.
Dual-core Atom processors are powering some of today's netbooks, while tablets are using single-core chips. Intel "will continue to evolve the roadmap," but the number of cores isn't the only important issue, Davis said. Performance-per-watt and battery life are key factors when it comes to competing against ARM-based devices. "You're going to continue to see us make great progress there," he said.
While tablet sales are starting to eat into netbook market share, Davis expressed optimism.
"What I would acknowledge is there hasn't been a lot of innovation in [the netbook] space in the last year or so," he said. "But we're going to see netbooks become very thin, and fanless. We're going to see technologies like Wireless Display and those kinds of things moving into netbooks. We're going to see a lot of things coming into that space."
Netbooks and tablets could even merge somewhat, giving users a small, touch-screen tablet with a slide-out keyboard, he noted. Obviously, netbook hardware will continue to improve. "In general you're going to see increasing capabilities in that regard," Davis said. "We've introduced dual-core. You'll continue to see improvements in visual capabilities, in terms of graphics performance."
Apple is likely to continue dominating the tablet market in the near term, but Davis said Intel will put up a strong fight. "The pace of innovation is moving very quickly," he said.
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