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Intel CEO: PC market slogging along at half speed

Windows 8 the savior? Wait 90 days. What will it run on? Wait a year

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Intel president and CEO Paul Otellini knows that the PC business is in the tank, believes that Windows 8 might lift it out of its funk, and can't predict which form factor will be The Next Big Thing – tablets, convertibles, or Ultrabooks.

"We do believe that when the numbers are all in," he told analysts and reporters during a conference call after Intel announced its third-quarter financial results on Tuesday, "PC consumption did grow in Q3 at about half the normal seasonal rate, and will also grow in Q4 at about half the normal seasonal rate."

Why such a slump? Is it caused by the generally crappy world economy, or because sales of tablets – essentially all ARM-based – are tearing bleeding chunks out of the PC market? Otellini doesn't know.

"How much of that 'halfing' is macroeconomic versus the timing of the Windows 8 build and the share-of-wallet war for tablets versus PCs is TBD," he said, "and we'll know a lot more about that 90 days from now, after the Windows 8 launch, after we see Intel-based tablets start shipping, when people start playing with the operating system, [and] have all the touch-based Ultrabooks out there. We'll know a lot more."

Otellini is optimistic, although he's not ready to make a firm prediction. He did talk about how Intel has taken touch-enabled Windows 8 devices to many cities around the world and watched potential buyers fondle them. "The feedback is universally positive," he said.

Despite that feedback, however, Otellini admitted that it's too soon to tell whether Windows 8 will foster a resurgence in PC purchases – touch-enabled or not touch-enabled. "The darn thing hasn't even launched yet," he said. "We'll know a lot more about this 90 days from now."

Okay, 90 days from now we'll have a better idea as to whether Windows 8 will de-funk the funked-up PC market. But what will the devices that it runs on look like? Otellini doesn't know that either – honest man – but he does have his opinions, one being that "I don't think that the tablet as we've seen it evolve over the last several years is the end-state of computing."

That said, Intel isn't shying away from any manufacturer that wants to pop one of its chips into a Windows 8 tablet. Before the end of this year, he said, over 20 Atom-based tablets will be released by "six or more leading OEMs," each fondleslab based on Intel's tablet-centric Medfield variant, Clover Trail, aka the 1.80GHz Atom Z2760.

But he's been busy talking with Intel customers, and says that "while the market remains tough, I've been encouraged to see a renewed appetite for innovation across the entire ecosystem." That "ecosystem innovation" includes manufacturers building not only touch-enabled tablets, but also touchy-feely convertibles and Ultrabooks.

There will be more than 140 Intel Core processor–based Ultrabooks, he said, and more than 40 of them will have touch, including "more than a dozen" convertibles. Many of those Ultrabooks will be available at what he identified as the "mainstream" $699 price, with some priced "well below" that figure.

Otellini is jazzed about the growth in those touch-enabled Ultrabooks. "Six, eight months ago we did not have line-of-sight to 40 out of 140 of these SKUs of Ultrabooks being touch-enabled," he said. "It was probably five or 10, and we're up to 40 now, and that's just going to get bigger as we go into 2013."

But in the tablet versus convertible versus Ultrabook smackdown, Otellini isn't picking a winner. Not yet.

"What I can't predict is what form factor is going to win here," he said, "but I do think that some of these things that have sort of the best of both worlds – the performance and the capability of a laptop and the form factor and convenience of a tablet – are likely to be the things that are the most high-volume runners, but we honestly won't know for 12 months."

So, it'll be 90 days until we know whether Windows 8 will save the PC industry's bacon, and one year until we know the most popular form factor it will be running on.

That'll be a long and perhaps rather bumpy transition period. But if Otellini is worried, he was careful not to let his audience know. "Intel has a history of navigating the industry's transitions," he said, "and emerging better and stronger."

For the sake of Intel's workers and investors – and perhaps for the future of Moore's law – let's hope his optimism is justified. ®

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