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Why are Microsoft and Intel slapping and pulling hair?

Playroom politics as MS lets ARM play with its dolly

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Analysis For all the cloudy proclamations Microsoft's boss Steve Ballmer has been making of late, the company's bread 'n' butter products remain on the desktop. And that's a fact that Intel, whose lengthy and prosperous partnership with Redmond recently took a major knock, knows only too well.

Which perhaps goes some way to explaining why Chipzilla's software chief Renée James has been publicly stirring the pot about Microsoft's development of its next Windows operating system.

She stated that non-x86 versions of Windows 8, as it is currently codenamed, won't "ever" run legacy applications.

Of course, MS has long been searching for a foothold in the tablet market, which is now dominated by Apple's iPad as well as slabs running Google's Android OS.

Ballmer has been dinged by the company's shareholders for not successfully pursuing "innovations to take advantage of new form factors", his bonus was capped in October last year to highlight that failure.

Microsoft is in a corner. Its OS empire remains dominant, but the company's might – not just in the consumer market, but also in the corporate and public sector world – is fading as Apple's iPad and other touchscreen and mobile devices have moved into the mainstream.

Ballmer promised Microsoft's investors he would deliver Windows tablet. So the arrival of the software vendor's partnership with ARM clearly reflected that desire to compete with Apple.

At the time that deal was struck, Microsoft was at pains to point out that its relationship with Intel, and indeed AMD, hadn't come to an abrupt end.

Both chip firms will continue to design and build the x86 platform for future Windows-based PCs, said Microsoft in January this year. Hell, those systems, according to James, also get to run the "Windows 8 traditional" version of the OS. Which can be interpreted either as the old fart brigade, or be seen as the processor forefathers of all our hearts.

Either way, there's plenty of room for everyone, even if Intel feels crowded out by the new kid on the block.

James suggested Microsoft was developing four Windows versions for ARM systems.

"There will be four Windows 8 SoCs [system-on-a-chip architectures] for ARM. Each one will run for that specific ARM environment, and they will run new applications or cloud-based applications.

"They are neither forward- nor backward-compatible between their own architecture – different generations of a single vendor – nor are they compatible across different vendors. Each one is a unique stack."

But Intel's "factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading" comments about future ARM-based Windows systems strongly hint that some of the processor chip vendor's execs have taken serious umbrage with Microsoft's newest Silicon friend.

Interestingly, Microsoft bristled at James's remarks and was quick to reject her protestations about ARM systems not running legacy applications on the next version of Windows.

At the same time, the software maker refused to break down that statement and explain which comments made by Intel's software boss were wrong.

This can be interpreted two ways. The first is that Microsoft simply wants to closely guard its Windows 8 roadmap. The second, more tantalisingly, is that Redmond is being evasive about the x86 architecture its previous operating systems have relied upon so heavily because the company has finally acknowledged that legacy software and the tablet interface don't mix well.

In October last year, I saw an internal Microsoft document that pointed out that the company was desperate to realign its strategy.

"Business processes that have remained untouched for years urgently need to be examined," it said.

If part of that identity crisis overhaul involves Microsoft dangerously shaking off its legacy past, then so be it. But for Intel to publicly admit that its chips aren't as essential to MS as they once were, is just as damaging for Chipzilla's anxiety over its future in the so-called post-PC era. ®

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