For many years, Microsoft’s Windows operating systems and Intel’s processors dominated the PC business. But the continued health of this “Wintel” alliance seems more in doubt than ever, at least according to research firm IHS.
“Microsoft and Intel once marched shoulder to shoulder, dominating the PC market with their closely tied operating system and microprocessor technologies,” Craig Stice, senior principal analyst compute platforms at IHS, wrote in a Sept. 4 note.
While Intel and Microsoft managed to exert significant influence on their hardware partners for quite some time, he added, “With smartphones and tablets performing tasks previously exclusive to PCs, the computer market has expanded to include other platforms.”
ARM architecture has arisen to dominate the mobile-device hardware market, while Google Android and Apple’s iOS all but split the mobile OS realm between them. Microsoft and Intel are making headway into their respective portions of the mobility market, but the ultimate outcome is very much unclear: IHS estimates Intel’s share of the mobile processor market at between 6 percent and 8 percent, based on revenue, while Microsoft’s mobile software lags far behind its rivals in market-share.
Whereas Windows was originally designed for PCs with limited (or no) Internet connectivity and local storage, these new operating systems were built for a fast, cloud-centric environment, one in which users rely on apps and data downloaded from distant servers.
“Wintel now is playing in a new computer market that is a composite of the PC, smartphone and media tablet segments,” Stice added in the note. “The smartphone influenced the tablet, the tablet influenced the PC, the PC wants to become more like a tablet and the tablet more like a PC. It’s a vicious circle in which both Intel and Microsoft must take part, but they are losing control of the game and how it’s played.” IHS’s forecast model (see above) shows the two companies’ respective market shares dipping sharply through 2013 before leveling out, with Microsoft faring slightly better.
Microsoft’s response to the big shift from PCs to mobility is, simply put, Windows 8. In place of previous Windows versions’ desktop user interface, Windows 8 offers a screen of colorful tiles linked to applications. That’s meant to make the operating system easier to use on touch-screen tablets—although old-school purists can tap or click a particular tile to shift to a desktop view. It features an app store and baked-in cloud features, in a bid to replicate some of the functionality that made mobile operating systems so popular.
But in order to appeal to the broadest possible tablet market, Microsoft is also releasing a version of Windows compatible with ARM. That could introduce even more tension into Microsoft’s relationship with Intel.
“Wintel” may have dominated for many years, in other words, but it faces unprecedented challenges.