SAN JOSE, Calif. – The debut of Windows 8 on Friday (Oct. 26) marks the end of the Wintel duopoly, right? Well, yes and no.
Microsoft is rolling out its next big version of Windows and its own Surface tablet as its first platform. Yes, both Win 8 and Surface come in versions for ARM-based SoCs. But the Wintel duopoly is going strong despite this threat and ones before it.
Remember ACE? Compaq, Microsoft, NEC and a few other PC leaders got together in 1991 to define a MIPS-based desktop that would run Windows NT and SCO Unix. Motherboards from systems like the MIPS RC3230 (below) were supposed to be x86 killers.
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The ACE PCs didn’t offer much more performance than Pentium PCs of the day, especially after Intel got more aggressive in the use of the latest semiconductor process technology. And the ACE systems were a bit pricey. So they never took off.
Today, most PC makers have already rolled out full portfolios of x86 Win 8 desktops and notebooks. Only a handful of companies—Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Samsung and ZTE—are expected to make systems (just tablets, so far) for Windows RT, and those probably will not be ready until early 2013.
Still, there’s a growing fissure in the Wintel duopoly, and it comes a touchy time with traditional desktop and notebook sales sputtering. ARM has built up a powerful ecosystem, riding the smartphone and smart everything juggernaut unlike the ad hoc ACE group of the 1990s.
If ARM gets a foot in the door (to mix metaphors) and uses its leverage in tablets, the 64-bit ARM chips that emerge could start appearing in notebooks, desktops and even servers. Who knows? Come the fall of 2015, we may see the debut of Windows Server for ARM, too.
This would have major repercussions for the semiconductor industry, especially its largest member--Intel. The x86 giant would not be able to sustain its average selling prices that now hover around $100 for client CPUs in the face of ARM SoCs that typically cost about $20.
The industry’s biggest microprocessor maker might become the new and largest alternative to TSMC. FinFETs, anyone?
Meanwhile there are plenty of interesting and awkward twists and turns ahead thanks to the advent of Win 8. We offer some examples in the following pages.