Intel's Broadwell: What Happens When the MacBook Air Is Thinner Than the iPad Air?
Aug 11, 2014 9:01 AM PT
Intel on Monday introduced its Broadwell processor platform to the world, and it is an impressive piece of technology. Stepping outside of its normal two-step process of first releasing the processor and then updating the platform, Intel is doing both this cycle, and the end result is a massive step forward in terms of size and power efficiency. Intel is stepping solidly into turf once owned by the ARM technology most commonly found in tablets and smartphones.
The prototype tablet Intel is showcasing with the launch -- which runs full OSes like Windows and OS X -- is actually both thinner and lighter than an iPad Air, which creates an interesting problem for the slowing tablet market. What if you could get full Windows and OS X in a form factor thinner and lighter than an iPad Air?
I'll dive into what this massive improvement in processing capability means and close with my product of the week: the rather impressive Timex Ironman One GPS+ Smartwatch, based on Qualcomm's Toq platform.
Last week I was prebriefed on Intel's announcement, and while it was easy -- way too easy -- to get lost in how they made this happen, the reality is that this may be the most significant technical advancement that Intel has made in a processor since the creation of x86. There is really very little, including process technology, that has been left unchanged by this move.
This was the culmination of a massive near company-wide effort to counter the threat represented by ARM, to create PC-level performance in an ARM-level energy and heat envelope. In other words, this was one of the most massive efforts I've ever seen Intel -- or any company -- undertake, and the result is stunning.
The showcase prototype tablet is thinner and lighter than an iPad Air, and it runs full operating systems and their mobile counterparts. Both Apple and Microsoft have been hinting at converging their mobile and desktop platforms to maximize their apps and minimize their support costs, but they have been somewhat reticent -- in part because tablet platforms couldn't support their desktop efforts, and desktop platforms wouldn't work in a Tablet like the iPad Air.
Well, that just changed -- and right now, Intel is the only vendor that can cover the tablet and desktop segments adequately with a single architecture. Part of this is getting the thermals of the processor down so that, like ARM, you don't need a fan.
Apple's Thin Problem
This brings up a problem, though. If Apple and Microsoft can create a thinner, lighter, tablet for their OS X and Windows platforms with a touchscreen, then what happens to tablets?
Ever since the iPad came out, folks have been trying to use it for work -- but that hasn't proven very successful. For instance, at least four of my peers were trying to use iPads as their primary mobile platform a year ago, and most were either on MacBook Air or Surface products at the last briefing.
It is simply too painful to try and live off an iPad for most, because it doesn't support their legacy applications and they take too big a performance hit.
Now they still want to carry a very thin and light product with good battery life, but the iPad just isn't doing it for them. Present these folks with a laptop with performance size and weight in line with an iPad, and suddenly you wonder why you need an iPad anymore.
I think this is going to be a problem for Apple, because it wants people to buy both. If there is too much overlap between an iPad and a MacBook Air, however, a bunch of folks likely will pass on the iPad (sales have been slowing sharply anyway) and just buy the MacBook.
This creates a rather impressive advantage for Microsoft and Windows 9 to take the market back from Apple.
Microsoft's Windows 95 Opportunity
Here is where Microsoft could slap Apple, with a Windows 95-like event. I remember the Windows 95 launch vividly, because I was the named analyst for the launch. I'd gone to Apple execs prior to it, saying they needed to step up their game or Microsoft was likely going to roll over them and they'd bleed market share.
They were unconcerned because they felt that Windows 95 was years behind where they were. Apple nearly went under four years later, forcing the board to bring back Steve Jobs to save the company.
You see, while Apple will resist putting touch on a MacBook Air because it wants customers to buy both a laptop and an iPad, Microsoft doesn't have those same concerns. The Broadwell version of Surface running Windows 9 could become both a MacBook Air and an iPad killer as a result, because it will be an ideal blend of both products. I don't think customers will buy both a light laptop and a tablet if presented with an attractive alternative that does an excellent job replacing both.
That is what Windows 95 provided. Before Windows 95, DOS was more business and the Mac was more personal. Windows 9 will provide a similar blend between laptops and tablets, and business and personal uses -- particularly when placed on Broadwell -- and we may quickly find that a lot of the more recent Apple converts will convert back as a result.
Certainly Apple, which also uses Intel, could do the same thing. However, because it is afraid of collapsing the iPad into the MacBook Pro and losing the revenue, it won't -- handing Microsoft back the market. Granted, Microsoft will have to execute at Windows 95 levels, but its current CEO is far closer to Bill Gates and far more likely to do this than its last CEO was.
I think we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg with Broadwell. Once you get a fully capable processor into an ARM thermal envelope, you can do some incredible things in a lot of markets. Embedded products -- like those put in cars and homes -- get much more interesting, designs for tablets and PCs potentially far more creative, and products that only could exist in people's minds take form in reality.
I think Broadwell will shake up the PC market a lot. Ramping into its launch, PC segments already were growing, while tablet segments were hurting. I think Broadwell creates half of the equation needed for another Windows 95 event, and now we'll see whether Microsoft can step up to this with Windows 9. Apple's betting no -- and I know of at least one time when that didn't turn out so well.
Product of the Week: Timex Ironman One GPS+
The Timex Ironman One GPS+ watch is one of the most impressive advances in smartwatch capability to date. This watch actually could save your life. You see, like the Kindle Paperwhite 3G, it comes with a lifetime data plant to AT&T, which means it doesn't need to connect to a smartphone to work. One of its killer features is the equivalent of a panic button that, should you get into trouble, can summon and guide help to your location.
I think this is one of those features that becomes a must-have if you have a loved one you need to keep track of. Attacks on runners seem to be more and more frequent and heart attacks increasingly common. Alzheimer's robs people of their ability to find their way home. People could massively benefit from a product that can call for help and can help rescuers quickly locate where they are.
The other killer technology is the Mirasol display technology from Qualcomm which both cuts the watch's power usage significantly and makes the LCD face far easier to read in bright daylight.
In fact, the entire watch is based on the Qualcomm Toq platform, which undoubtedly massively sped up its time to market.
At US$400, it is one of the most expensive products in the class, but it does come with lifetime data from AT&T, and it doesn't need a smartphone, which means you can leave the phone behind when running. Of course, it limits the number of apps you have available. On this point, I wonder how many apps, outside of the covered exercise and messaging capabilities, you really need in a watch.
Timex really had me with the panic button feature -- I've been expecting this for years given the increasing threats -- but overall, this is one of the most innovative products I've seen this year, which makes it an obvious choice for my product of the week.
It is due out in the last part of the year, though you should be able to preorder it shortly. I expect demand to be high.