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7/8/2005
02:00 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Is The PC World Passing 'Wintel' By?

With Linux here to stay and the Mac on its way, a name that defined the PC market no longer carries cachet like it did in the past.

Two countervailing trends are converging, in a technological pincer movement that could upend long-standing notions about just what constitutes the standard PC architecture. Since 1992, when Windows 3.1 was released, the dominant platform has been the "Wintel" combo of a Microsoft operating system and an Intel processor.

Sure, there have been attempts to supplant Intel with alternate architectures, notably Apple's Macintosh, which started life in 1984 using Motorola's 68K processors and 1994 moved to the IBM-Motorola PowerPC. It's safe to say, however, that perceptions about the Mac's market success outpace the reality.

More to the point, after years of touting the advantages of the PowerPC processor over Intel's Pentium, Apple CEO Steve Jobs on June 6 finally threw in the towel and announced that Apple will begin using x86-based microprocessors from Intel in its Macintosh computers, beginning next year. Indeed, Intel processors will permeate Apple's entire product line by the end of 2007.

Jobs decision was thought to have been driven by the fact that IBM didn't sprinkle as much special care on Apple as it wanted, as well as by cost considerations. (I'm not talking about the cost of the processor itself, so much as the fact that Intel's higher-volume platform offers a broader and cheaper universe of peripheral, memory, and I/O subsystem designs.)

The upshot is that, as far as client (desktop) PCs go, Intel is pretty much the only game in town. (In this context, "Intel" means the Intel architecture, so AMD processors are included, too.) And, with new microprocessor designs costing many millions of dollars, it's going to remain that way.

However, while PC processors are more tightly tied to the Intel architecture than ever, thanks to Linux the operating-system world isn't quite so monolithic.

Granted, Linux has not arrived on the desktop, where it still has a miniscule share variously pegged at between one and five percent of the market. However, its server-side penetration has made it an accepted OS, regardless of its slow client-side growth. Consider that the perennial crop of "Linux has arrived" stories has given way to the widely accepted notion that the OS is in fact "here," and that what's happening now is the emergence of the LAMP stack. (LAMP is an acronym that stands for the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database, and PHP or Perl scripting languages.) That is, independent software developers and users, having already installed the OS, are now focused on porting applications over to Linux.

This is evident across the board, from major vendors such as Oracle, which was one of the first to give Linux the stamp of approval, to newcomers like SugarCRM, a scrappy startup in Cupertino, Calif., that's building a thriving business marketing an on-demand CRM application under Linux.

The upshot is a healthy universe of software to pick from, as well as a customer base that's increasingly willing to dip its toes into the Linux waters.

So, while Windows will continue to dominate in terms of sheer numbers, the days when Microsoft set the industry's software technology agenda are gone. As Longhorn slouches toward an uncertain delivery date with an unclear feature set, interest is being whetted in other areas.

Consider that Apple's plan to use the MacOS on Intel hardware—I call it the Mactel architecture—is likely to create a large, messy category consisting not only of Apple-authorized machines but also standard PCs that have been hacked to host MacOS.

As for Linux, its growth on the server side looks like it will continue unabated. On the client side, even if it never achieves a sizable PC installed base (I call these "Lintel" boxes), it has played its most important role in terms of keeping Microsoft honest, in much the same way that AMD holds Intel's chip technology to the fire.

That's a situation the folks in Redmond can't be happy with. My feeling is that Microsoft is already in the early stages of formulating a response to blunt the threat of open-source software. The plan can be seen in Microsoft's increasingly close ties to Sun Microsystems, which has a powerful arsenal of software intellectual property in the form of Solaris, Java, and NetBeans.

If, one day soon, Sun and Microsoft turned their alliance into a full-blown corporate marriage, Microsoft would both reduce the pressure on Longhorn and add technology with enough credibility to field as an alternative to Linux. Suntel, anyone?

Alex Wolfe is TechWeb's East Coast News Editor.

The TechWeb Spin TechWeb's editors are busy assigning and editing and linking and otherwise creating the content you see on TechWeb.com and the Pipeline sites, but we wanted the chance to tell you what we see and what we think about it directly. So, each week, The TechWeb Spin will bring you the informed insight and unique perspective of a different TechWeb editor: Fredric Paul, Scot Finnie, Tim Moran, Stuart Glascock, Alexander Wolfe, Mitch Wagner, Val Potter, and Cora Nucci. We hope you like it, and even if you don't we hope you take the time to tell us what you think about it.

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