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MS XP-Tablet combo cuts Intel out of PC standards biz

So farewell, Wintel. We are the standards setters now...

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Microsoft doesn't make hardware, and you can't have failed to notice that it's been not making quite a bit of hardware recently. It has for example been not making the Xbox, not making Stinger and - just this week - not making Tablet PCs.

But in each of these cases, the point to note is that Microsoft has put itself in the driving seat wheh it comes to defining the hardware that is going to be made by the industry, while the company's old partners in the Wintel hate-hate relationship have been knocked back from the status of co-specifier (or even lead member, which is how it's often looked in the past) to competing supplier.

The initial plan to use AMD Athlon for Xbox was a signal of the way the wind was blowing, although that time Intel was able to head AMD off at the pass and get the gig for its own chips. But achieving this will have been costly for Intel, with money being the least of the company's problems. Instead of being able to work with Microsoft from the start in specifying a hardware design, Intel came late to a Microsoft design.

The Tablet is, if anything, worse for Intel. Microsoft used Transmeta chips for the demo units it showed last year, some form of Crusoe optimisation seems to be already under development in the WinXP beta code, and there have been several other signs that Microsoft and Transmeta have what you'd call a relationship going. Aside from TMTA hardware being appropriate for Tablet class PCs, you might also consider how nicely it might fit into other Microsoft projects. Embedded and appliance type gear maybe? Or in the reference design for Blade servers for ISPs and ASPs? That's a couple of other pieces of hardware Microsoft could maybe not build in the future, and it could easily stack up to be Chipzilla's worst nightmare.

Or second worst, because you'll have noticed I haven't even bothered speculating about the things Microsoft might be up to with AMD.

As far as the Tablet is concerned, Intel currently has the status of 'industry supporter' and supplier - alongside Transmeta - of semiconductor technology. The Xbox coup at AMD's expense means we shouldn't write the Princes of Paranoia off quite yet, and Transmeta should watch out for dark alleys, but right now it doesn't look good. And again, Intel finds itself trying to leverage a position with Microsoft-specifed design blueprints.

This is much more important in the case of the Tablet than it is with Xbox, because Microsoft sees the Tablet as the mass-selling standard for the next generation PC. As the execs said this week you tote your Tablet around with you at home, in the office and on the move, you plug it into stuff wherever you are and it magically hooks up to the available networks wherever you are. It is your primary PC, it is the basis of the standard PC, starting in 2002 when the wraps finally come off.

As we mentioned recently, when Intel and Microsoft finally got the PC2001 Design Guide finalised late last year, they tacked on a suicide note. "Intel and Microsoft will partner with the industry to develop future design guidelines for emerging PC technologies through individual white papers. There are no plans for Intel and Microsoft to co-author a comprehensive set of design guidelines after PC 2001 System Design Guide" (our emphasis).

In the context of their joint activities over previous years, this announcement was bizarre. Between them the two companies have habitually divvied-up the PC standards setting business and told the PC manufacturers what they could, should and could not put into their designs. PC2001 specced the machines intended to come onto the market in the second half of this year, and was the culmination of a series of PC9x (they skipped 2000) blueprints. The suicide note, however, made it clear they weren't going to do this any longer, and "individual white papers" focusing on particular technologies means there's no clear successor.

Not from Wintel, anyway. The Tablet will use the standard Microsoft OS, will have a spec of a similar order to desktop machines, and is intended to come in all shapes and sizes. Take out the Tablet-specific hardware and software, plug it into a screen and a keyboard and it's a PC. So you could see it as being like the PC2002 design would have been, except Microsoft's driving it on its own. A good few years ago now custodianship of the PC standard was wrestled from IBM (with quite a bit of inadvertent help from Big Blue), and PC9x was the result of this. Are we now seeing the next change of the guard? ®

Related stories:
Compaq and Transmeta named in Tablet PC XP gang
WinXP to include support for Transmeta Crusoe chips

So farewell then, PC Design Guide for the Microsoft Windows Family of Operating Systems

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