What's going to power Small, Cheap Computers?
Atoms, dragons and Windows?
With Microsoft and Intel both pushing for x86 compatibility, and thus Windows XP on mobile devices, they might seem unstoppable. Except that Microsoft isn't pushing that way at all.
Unlike XP, Windows Mobile doesn't need x86 compatibility. In fact, the latest versions have dropped support for what they consider legacy platforms, and Windows Mobile is becoming an ARM-only product.
Right now Windows Mobile is aimed at mobile phones, though Microsoft has aspirations for it to drive everything below the full-blown desktop replacement. Jason Longridge, UK Mobility Business Manager at Microsoft, told us the only reason for using desktop Windows was "if they [the user] has got a legacy application that requires Vista or XP". Other than that he expects Windows Mobile to fulfil their every need, and on an ARM processing core.
ARM chips have their own super-power backing in the form of Qualcomm, whose Snapdragon processor is coming out later this year. It will apparently provide comparable processing power with Intel's Atom, while consuming even less power.
Nokia's N810: Linux all the way
Qualcomm isn't expecting to use Windows mobile on Pocketable Computing Devices (what Intel calls a "Mobile Internet Device", though Qualcomm also has a bigger "Mobile Computing Device"). The company is sold on the Linux dream: "The only thing you can't do [with Linux] is bring your applications with you," Manjit Gill, Qualcomm's director of product management, told us. However, surprisingly often that's exactly what people want to do.
One player with no aspirations towards the middle ground is Symbian, which prefers the mid to low-end phone market and has no ambition to be all things to all men. Even Nokia, proud owner of the soon-to-be-open-sourced OS, doesn't use Symbian on its Internet Tablet device - which will soon become a range of Linux-based devices aimed squarely at this middle ground.
Intel contends that surfing the web isn't possible without x86 applications such as Macromedia's Flash, but that's belied by the availability of Flash on ARM, along with just about every other handy bit of software. The reality is that all the popular technologies will be available on the next generation of internet-capable devices, regardless of the processor they use or the operating system they run.
Intel's Atom will win wherever Windows XP makes sense, but as long as punters know that XP is for desktops they'll be happy to take alternatives on mobile devices, especially as they move further away from the recognisable laptop form factor. So expect to see Intel pushing Windows XP as the only platform for mobile surfing, while everyone else looks elsewhere. ®
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