Intel announces new CEO, along with more details about its upcoming Haswell chips. But Intel's smartphone and tablet rivals continue to gain power.
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Intel on Thursday announced that Brian Krzanich, the chipmaker's current COO, will replace Paul Otellini as CEO, effective May 16.
The news arrived only hours after the company released data to tout its forthcoming Haswell chips' improved graphics power and energy management. The new processors have been widely linked to the sagging PC industry's chance for resurgence, and to Intel's continued dominance. But with Intel playing from behind on the mobile scene while also feeling pressure on its server business, Krzanich will face several challenges as he takes the reins.
In a statement, Krzanich emphasized Intel's desire to infiltrate the mobile market. "We have amazing assets, tremendous talent, and an unmatched legacy of innovation and execution," he said. "I look forward to working with our leadership team and employees worldwide to continue our proud legacy, while moving even faster into ultra-mobility, to lead Intel into the next era."
This focus on mobility is nothing new. Tablets and smartphones, most of which run on ARM processors, have cut deeply into the market for traditional PCs. Last fall, prior to the release of Windows 8, Intel representatives argued that thin form factors, low power consumption and robust graphics performance were prerequisites to the PC's resurgence, and that the company's Ultrabook line was intended to deliver precisely these qualities. The Ultrabooks that followed, however, have failed so far to reverse the declining sales of traditional computers, making Haswell one of several key factors -- Windows Blue, Microsoft's upcoming update to Windows 8, is another -- in the PC market's future.
Haswell, the fourth generation of Intel's Core processor family, is expected to officially debut in June, in time for the Computex trade show in Taipei, China. Devices with updated silicon, which brings a new fabrication process to the Core line, could hit the market by this summer.
Intel began teasing Haswell last fall, promising that the chips would deliver the greatest generation-over-generation improvements in energy consumption in the company's history. On Wednesday, shortly before Krzanich's appointment was announced, Intel divulged additional details about the chips' graphics performance, revealing that Haswell GPUs will come in five varieties, up from three in the current lineup, and that the most powerful versions will offer nearly three times the performance of existing models.
Such huge leaps won't come to all Haswell models, however; different versions of the chip are aimed at different types of devices. Some of the processors, for example, will offer computing muscle comparable to today's models while also boosting graphics firepower and drawing less energy. Other chips will continue to consume as much or more power than the current Ivy Bridge processors but will provide tremendous performance gains. The variety is intended to give OEMs the flexibility to pursue wildly different form factors – from ultrathin tablets to no-compromise desktops – without skimping on processing power.
Though Haswell will find its way into traditional computers, it promises to advance Intel's mobile agenda by endowing Ultrabooks with tablet-like battery life. Current Windows 8 mobile devices have absorbed criticism on a number of fronts, many of them related to the OS, which is a radical departure from previous Windows editions. Battery life, however, has been a major concern. The Surface Pro might offer a full-blown OS experience in a portable, well-built package, but for many users its four-hour battery life makes it a non-starter.
Thanks to Haswell, OEMs should have more flexibility to avoid such design compromises. Whereas some of today's top laptops require both an Intel CPU but and a discrete graphics processor, fourth-generation Core devices won't necessarily need the extra components. Fewer internal pieces means even ultrathin devices will be able to accommodate larger batteries, which, in combination with Haswell's other optimizations, should produce Ultrabooks that run all day without being recharged.
But even if Haswell delivers on all counts, Krzanich will still be taking over during a period of industry-wide transition. Intel has long provided its chips to non-Windows devices, such as Apple's Mac lineup, but the chipmaker's relationship with Microsoft has traditionally been close and symbiotic. Commentators have long referred to the two companies as a single entity -- "Wintel" -- due to their mutual stake in the marketplace. That relationship, however, has begun to change.
Intel's Core chips are now running not only in Windows and Mac devices, but also in new competitors such as Chromebooks. Many of Redmond's OEM partners, such as HP and Samsung, have likewise begun to explore OSes other than Windows. Microsoft, meanwhile, chose to put an ARM processor in its Surface RT tablet.
As the marketplace has become fragmented between traditional PCs and ultra-mobile devices as well as within the evolving mobile segment itself, the odds that any given OS will dominate have dramatically decreased. The days of Windows ruling 90% of personal computing devices are over, and both Microsoft and Intel are attempting to adjust to the changing dynamics.
ARM is a major factor in the mix. These processors power most of the world's smartphones as well as many tablets, such as the iPad. ARM chips have traditionally lacked the raw processing power offered by Intel's x86 processors -- but ARM has compensated by delivering strong graphics performance and long battery life. Haswell stands to close this gap to a degree, allowing Intel to maintain its lead in core CPU power while catching up in energy management.
Even so, after dominating the traditional PC space for years, Intel has struggled to establish a presence in the smartphone and tablet space. Tablets are expected to outsell traditional PCs for the foreseeable future, and Intel could fall behind some of its upstart rivals if it doesn't make moves. Indeed, ARM is intruding even on Intel's server business.
Intel's next-generation Atom chips, code-named Bay Trail, are a response to the ARM upsurge. These chips will appear in smartphones as well as tablets, which, unlike ARM offerings, can run a full desktop OS. This enables OEMs to build ultra-portable form factors that, because they don't require a fan for cooling, will be thinner than current devices but still able to run legacy applications. Competitively priced 8-inch Windows 8 tablets that utilize Bay Trail are expected to hit the market in coming months, potentially boosting Microsoft's BYOD hopes.
The scope of Krzanich's challenges will become clearer once devices with the new chips start shipping and users have had a chance to judge Windows Blue's improvements. In the meantime, the new chips' promised improvements are cause for optimism, not only for Intel but arguably for OEMs and Microsoft as well.
As shown in Intel's new ad campaign, in which aging machines are cast aside in favor of new Ultrabooks, the chipmaker believes that traditional PCs are being replaced by a new breed of computing devices. That's undoubtedly true. The question, though, is whether the most popular of these new devices will use chips from Intel, Qualcomm, Apple or someone else, and whether they will run Windows 8, iOS or Android.
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