Should Intel be concerned over the end of the "Wintel" era? For the past decade, the strong duo of Intel processors and Windows operating systems dominated 90% of computers worldwide, although now the domination is slowly shrinking with the emergence of mobile devices displacing traditional computers. Opponents of "Wintel," at least the Intel part of the equation, might have been happy to learn earlier this year of Microsoft's decision to support the ARM architecture in Windows 8. There is a large ecosystem of mobile devices with efficient low-power processors, powering a wide range of mobile operating systems from iOS to Android to Windows Phone 7.
But now, the world's most widely used desktop operating system is making its presence felt in the mobile market. System on a Chip (SoC) manufacturers find this an exciting prospect. Well, except for one problem: backwards compatibility. Although it is still Windows 8 on the surface, the architecture it runs on is completely incapable of running any Windows application today. Almost all Windows applications are compiled for the x86 and x86_64 architectures (and a sprinkling of Itanium), and the low-power aspects of ARM processors make it very expensive for Windows to emulate the x86 architecture in software. In other words, unless developers are quick to recompile their applications, ARM on Windows is a whole new ecosystem with the familiar Windows GUI.
And that's where Intel has the upper hand, claims Renée James, Intel's general manager of its software and services group. James's comments, which were reported on by The Register, came at Intel's Investor Meeting at their headquarters in Santa Clara. James did make one interesting comment, that the "traditional" Windows 8 flavour for the x86 architecture will have a "Windows 7 mode" for legacy applications. It is unclear whether Microsoft is planning on a seamless virtual desktop for old legacy applications in a simlar manner as Windows XP Mode, or if these are simply compatibility shims for applications.
Regardless of the terminology used, James makes clear that only Intel will deliver both sides of the coin: a low-power solution that may make Intel chips more desirable than ARM chips thanks to the use of Tri-Gate transistors, and also backwards compatibility with a decades-old catalog of applications. Then there's the long standing relationship between Microsoft and Intel, which James pointed out:
We've been working with Microsoft on Windows for probably 20 years, this year. We've been their partner for a long time – everybody writes about it, everybody talks about it.
But what you may not know, is that we have an on-site development team in Redmond that actually works deep inside the OS to make sure that the platforms, and the features, and the new instructions – whatever new thing we're inventing – is ready to go at the time of introduction of the latest Microsoft environment.
Intel has a unified architecture. What that means is that applications and operating systems can run from one generation of Intel platform to the next generation, and the same applications are going to run, forward- and backward-compatible. You can run the same application between different versions of our architecture – between Atom, between Xeon, between Core – which is not the case for our competitors in the ARM ecosystem.
Image Credit: Long Zheng