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Intel: Microsoft's ARM-on-Windows deal no threat

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CES 2011 Microsoft may have caused a disturbance in the PC Force with its announcement that the next version of Windows will run on ARM processors, but Intel isn't worried.

"You want to come and party in our kitchen and rattle the pots and pans? I've got Sandy Bridge. Bring it on," Intel spokesman Dave Salvator told The Reg on Friday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Before that pugnacious pronouncement, however, Salvator tried to minimize the shock value of Microsoft's announcement. "To some degree, it's not really news," he said. "We've had Windows on ARM for years. It's called Windows CE."

When reminded that Windows CE was not exactly the most impressive or powerful mobile operating system, Salvator admitted: "Well, that's why they call it 'WinCE'."

Then he gave the "no news" dodge one more try. "When you think about it, Windows 7 Phone, that's running on ARM." When we pointed out that Microsoft's smartphone OS is an entirely different animal than Windows for PCs, Salvator countered: "Fair enough – but it is Windows on ARM. Granted, we're into a little bit of semantics, but that's the marketing name – but [not] architecturally."

Feints completed, Salvator chose a more logical argument. "If you look at the complexity of the Windows kernel," he said, "if you look at the complexity of the Windows 7 operating system, if you look at the performance demands of that operating system – frankly, I welcome [the announcement].

"Because here's the thing: when people talk about ARM, they tend to point immediately to power: 'Oh, it's all about power, they do really great power'." Yeah, that's true, they have pretty good low power, but with Moorestown, frankly, so do we." Being Salvator's polite guest, we didn't point out that Moorestown barely dips its toes inside the power envelope for smartphones.

From Salvator's point of view, creating an ARM-equipped device that could compete with a PC would negate ARM's power advantage. "For them to really come and do anything serious that would go into into a bona fide PC device and deliver a full-fledged PC platform, they're going to have to do some different things ... like considering things like an out-of-order processing execution engine, going multi-core, and cranking up their clocks."

Dual-core ARM chips do already exist – Motorola's new Xoom tablet has one, for example. Also, Intel's netbook processor, Atom, is an in-order processor, one of many architectural choices that limit its performance to far less that that of its "full-fledged PC" brethren in the company's Core line.

Salvator pointed out that if an ARM chip were to be built whith those full-fledged upgrades: "There's some immutable laws of physics that say that if you do those things your transistor count is going to go up, so is your voltage, so is your heat, so is your power. So this miraculous power advantage that everyone seems to think is [ARM's] ace in the hole completely evaporates."

Salvator noted that some observers say that Windows-on-ARM will be a competitor to full-fledged PCs, but he's not buying it. And when asked if ARM could be an Atom competitor in the lower rungs of the PC market however, he had a story to tell.

"Let me give you one quick anecdote," he said, which he titled Aventures in Mispositioning. "When we first shipped Atom, a couple of clever system makers thought that they could basically take a chassis like that one" – he pointed to a plain-vanilla 15-inch laptop – "put an Atom inside it and call it a notebook, and sell it, and try to capture a premium for it sort of between the typical netbook and notebook price points. And they really kind of patted themselves on the back and said, 'Aren't we clever'. Until the returns started. Because people brought it back, saying: 'You know, I bought this expecting the full-fledged PC experience, but I didn't get it'."

To Salvator, it's all about the experience. "Historically," he said, at Intel, what we build are phenomenal engines. But the company thinking has historically been ... inside out: 'build a great engine and they will come'."

To be a success in the consumer market, according to Salvator, a device maker has to sell the experience, not just the engine. "Historically, we have not architected experiences. That's what Apple has done brilliantly. That's what anyone who does a good [consumer electronics] device has done well. They have to build the right solution – they need the right ASICs, they need the right softwre, they need the right knobs, they need the right plumbing – but what they ultimately need to think about, if they're selling to consumers, is 'I have to deliver a phenomenal experience – there has to be a joy associated with ths device, or it will fail'."

Salvator says that there is "an interesting transition that we're going through inside of Intel," and that transition is to focus on the consumer experience, and not merely the hardware behind it – hence the video-centric rollout of the Sandy Bridge 2nd Generation Intel Core processors earlier this week.

But as important as the consumer experience might be, he said, "Behind every great experience is great performance. And behind every great performance is a great engine."

In Salvator's view, ARM may be just fine for such consumer experiences as those provided by Apple's iPhone or any one of a squillion Android smartphones, but at low power-consumption levels it can't have the oomph to provide what customers expect when it comes to a Windows-based machine.

He illustrated that contention using the example of today's near-ubiquitous HD video. "'Create' is becoming the new 'consume'," he said, "and to have a great creation experience, you need to have great performance, and to have great performance, you need a great engine."

And that's not going to be an ARM processor running Windows, according to Salvator. ®

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