Intel and Microsoft Nip and Growl Over Windows’ Race to ARMs

Two of the biggest names in the high-tech industry — Microsoft and Intel — have begun duking it out over the issue of tablet computers.

Intel kicked off the row Wednesday when Renee James, head of its software business, mentioned that Microsoft will make multiple versions of Windows 8, four of which will work on processors from ARM. Those four, according to James, won’t run legacy applications.

That statement, made at Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters, sparked speculation that perhaps enterprises and consumers using Windows 8 tablets based on ARM processors would be unable to use their existing Windows apps.

The problem escalated when another Intel executive, Senior Vice President Tom Kilroy, commented that, in essence, Apple helps shape the chip giant’s future.

Was that another slap at Microsoft? Was it intentional? Is Intel preparing investors for a possible fall-off in demand as Microsoft develops versions of Windows to run on other processors?

The Possible Root of the Problem

ARM is — how best to say this? — putting the squeeze on Intel.

Microsoft stated at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January that its upcoming Windows 8 operating system will support ARM-based system on a chip (SoC) architectures from Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, as well as SOC designs from Intel and AMD.

At the show, Microsoft demonstrated Windows 8 running on new SoC platforms from various manufacturers.

It also demoed Microsoft Office running natively on ARM processors. Further, Microsoft pledged to support the widest variety of hardware platforms and form factors.

Meanwhile, Intel’s Atom processors are facing stiff competition in the mobile devices market from — you guessed it — ARM, although the chip giant is focusing strongly on the mobile sector.

Also, there are persistent rumors that Apple may be thinking of moving off Intel processors to ARM.

“Intel is betting that the future businesses, particularly large enterprises, would prefer to buy x86-based tablets that run the legacy apps they use today,” Tom Mainelli, a research manager at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

“Plus, today’s IT staff understand how to roll out and manage x86-based machines,” Mainelli said. “They just don’t have much experience supporting ARM-based devices.”

Intel, then, may be seeking to shore up its position as it comes under attack from ARM.

“One of the key strengths of the x86 architecture is backward compatibility with older software versions, and Intel will leverage that to full effect to guard against ARM-based chip vendors,” Sravan Kundojjala, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld.

Reworking Legacy Apps

It is possible to salvage legacy-based apps so they can be accessed by ARM-based devices through rewriting the apps.

Existing apps will need to be rewritten or at least recompiled to run on ARM, IDC’s Mainelli stated. Alternatively, the ARM devices will have to run some sort of x86 emulation, but that “typically doesn’t make for a great user experience.”

However, it’s not clear whether a massive rewrite will indeed be necessary because “Microsoft hasn’t finalized things yet,” Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

However, whenever something significantly new is introduced, the issue of managing existing apps comes up, Hilwa pointed out.

“Providing emulation layers, migration tools and other approaches that can reduce the pain and allow apps to harness new capabilities is typically part of the roadmap offering,” he explained.

Microsoft has a massive PC developer ecosystem it can harness if it needs to rework existing legacy apps, Hilwa remarked.

Starting With a Clean Slate?

Another option is to develop new apps from scratch for the ARM platform instead.

“Microsoft will need a humongous effort to prepare its legacy software ecosystem to switch to an ARM-based version of Windows,” Strategy Analytics’ Kundojjala said.

“I think it will take a clean-slate approach instead and try to build a new software ecosystem from scratch,” Kundojjala speculated. “This may take time, but it’ll be a sensible decision for Microsoft.”

The Sound of Silence

James’ statement about Windows for ARM tablets was met with criticism Thursday. Microsoft spokesperson Mark Martin characterized it as “factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading.”

“From the first demonstrations of Windows on SoC, we have been clear about our goals and have emphasized that we are at the technology demonstration stage,” Martin told TechNewsWorld. “As such, we have no further details or information at this time.”

Intel’s response to the criticism was minimal.

“The number four was arbitrary,” Intel spokesperson Suzy Ramirez told TechNewsWorld. “It was simply used to help demonstrate a point. Beyond that, we are not commenting further on the statements from yesterday at this time.”

Neither response tackles the question of whether or not ARM-based Windows 8 tablets will indeed be unable to run legacy Windows applications.

Microsoft “didn’t say what part of the statement was erroneous, just that the Intel executive got it wrong,” IDC’s Mainelli pointed out.

Whether the two will continue to dance around each other and throw jabs is uncertain. However, it’s unlikely that this will cause a permanent rift between them as they have been collaborating for years.

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