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Intel has driven a dagger through Microsoft's mobile strategy

Possibly not fatal to Continuum – but it doesn’t help

Analysis Intel’s retreat from mobile chips is one of the biggest disruptions to the Wintel relationship in Microsoft’s 35-year business relationship with the chip giant – if not the biggest of all.

There have been tiffs before, but not like this – and it raises serious questions about Microsoft’s mobile investments.

Don’t expect rebel shareholder and former CEO Steve Ballmer to intervene – he already thought the Universal Windows strategy was doomed. After Intel’s withdrawal, the odds against it succeeding have lengthened.

Microsoft’s dilemma: Being stranded on the beach

A decade ago, almost all client computing CPUs ran a Microsoft operating system. Today, only a third of connected devices are Microsoft devices, and the proportion drops every year. The world has gone mobile, and mobile means ARM, not x86.

The computing platform for the next billion users, just as it has been for the last billion, will almost certainly be ARM too.

Intel’s mobile chips were a vital bridge for Microsoft, as the Atom chips were the only low power, low cost mobile chips capable of running x86 Windows software natively.

Microsoft developed its clever and courageous strategy around two things: adaptable, portable apps (Universal Windows Applications) and multimode computing (Continuum). UWA apps can run on Xbox consoles and ARM tablets and phones, while Continuum allows a device to adapt itself into a fully fledged desktop. Only UWA apps can do the multimodal Continuum trick today. Continuum without the legacy support only goes so far. The UWA APIs are a subset of full-fat Windows.

Continuum today is like Samuel Johnson’s view of women preachers “… like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

It's rumored Microsoft made the assumption that Intel would provide the chips it needs to relaunch its mobile efforts next year with an Atom-powered Surface Phone that would do the multimodal trick, but could fall back on a native x86 Windows PC too. With a Surface Phone, if one were to ever emerge, Microsoft could argue that you can dispense with the PC entirely and just carry a phone in your pocket, breezing onto any available display, as the cloud would save your state information.

In the battle between “one device that can do many things”, and “many devices that are cheaper”, perhaps that would have been an important differentiator. Intel doesn’t kill Continuum, but it makes the combined multimodal/portable proposition much less attractive and unique. Without Intel’s support, the Surface Phone looks about as attractive today’s Lumia 950 models, which are far behind their Android counterparts in terms of app availability and quality.

Now put yourself in the position of a user wanting to use Microsoft apps and services, some three years out. Microsoft’s Android apps are already superior to their UWA counterparts. Android doesn’t yet do the multimodal trick, but you can be sure it soon will: if not from Google itself, then from upstarts like Jide. Remix OS already does what Continuum can't yet do: multitasking, windowed apps. The Android stores are full of rich Microsoft apps. And everyone else's apps.

The platform war for the next billion computer users could be over sooner than anyone thinks. ®

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