Time For Plan B At Intel - InformationWeek

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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
7/29/2013
10:49 AM
Mike Feibus
Mike Feibus
Commentary
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Time For Plan B At Intel

Windows 8's poor reception has opened a wider door for competitive platforms. Microsoft's partner in the Wintel hegemony should invest in an alternative.

It is time for Intel to begin placing bigger bets on Windows alternatives.

Let me assure you that I'm not schizophrenic, although I do understand why you might be wondering about that right now. Yes, I do remember the advice I gave to Intel CEO Brian Krzanich in my last column, "Don't Give Up on the PC." And now I'm suggesting he invest more heavily in Windows competitors. I know it sounds contradictory. But it's not.

As Intel's new top executive continues to evaluate the company's strategic priorities, he'd be foolhardy not to give Windows every shot at success. The company's PC Client Group, or PCG, generates far more sales and profit than any other business unit -- and the lion's share of those spoils comes from Intel chips inside Windows machines. Hence the don't-give-up message.

[ Can Microsoft eliminate the need for a Plan B at Intel? Read Microsoft's Dilemma: Windows 8.1 May Not Be Enough. ]

The flipside is that, on an annual basis, PCG's revenue and operating income have been declining every quarter since Microsoft released Windows 8 to manufacturing. Coincidence? Unless you're the kind of person who needs those pre-flight seat-belt fastening instructions, you don't need me to answer that.

OK, so don't put all your eggs in the Windows basket. Check. Now for the tough part: where to incubate the rest of those eggs?

The first choice, I think, has to be Google's Chrome OS. PC makers, some of which feel slighted by recent Microsoft moves -- such as the company's foray into the systems business with Surface -- have already been warming to Google's more desktop-like platform. So that's a big plus. Offering something your customers already want is so much easier than having to convince them that they want to buy what you're selling.

As for the OEMs' customers, IT isn't going to drop Windows for Chrome anytime in the next couple of years -- no matter what. But CIOs are kicking the tires. And the longer Microsoft's pit crew takes to swap out the wheels and get Windows back onto the track, the more viable it becomes. Keep in mind that switching platforms is only going to get easier as more of what we do migrates up to the cloud.

The more traditional Linux distributions should also be considered, though I have to admit that I'm not a big believer. I've been playing with Ubuntu's latest stable release, and I have to say that I'm impressed with how far Linux has come. While I still don't think it's ready for prime time, I can tell you with assurance that the mainstream is just around the corner. I mean that in a Herbert Hoover sort of way.

Android, Google's Java-on-Linux variant, may also be worth a look. That's a controversial recommendation, I know, as there are piles of reasons why Intel shouldn't bother. For one, OS development has splintered to the point that some believe Google has lost control of the platform. For another, the jury is still out on whether Android has enough mettle to extend into the desktop. Indeed, the jury is still out on whether any OS should even cover that much ground. (Think: Windows.)

On the positive side, Android's already got a wide reach, both in terms of the raw number of users as well as the vast stable of developers. So the chicken-and-egg thing is already well under control. As well, new versions of the OS continue to take aim at show-stoppers like security, email services and multi-tasking.

Of the three choices, I favor Chrome because of its focus on the desktop. I might consider investing in Android, as well. After all, none of the alternatives -- including Windows -- are a sure thing. So you might as well hedge your bets.

By now, that should be crystal clear to just about everyone. Everyone but the seat-belt people, of course.

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D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
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7/31/2013 | 1:12:08 AM
re: Time For Plan B At Intel
It's not just Power. It's low-end Power, low-end Sparc and low-end Itanium, plus all the new many massively parallel processing appliances and NoSQL and Hadoop deployments as well as clustered environments for high performance computing. Add to this the fact that these are the most expensive, higher-margin x86 machines where the dollars are much more significant than the units relative to PCs.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
7/30/2013 | 3:24:14 PM
re: Time For Plan B At Intel
Let's not forget about the higher-margin machines at the top end of the market. That's where x86 is making inroads against IBM Power http://twb.io/19uNcs4 HP Itanium and Oracle Sun Sparc, among others. This is a realm where the x86 story is strong and getting stronger. No Plan B required.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/30/2013 | 1:45:19 PM
re: Time For Plan B At Intel
One interesting aspect of the Wintel relationship is that Apple always seems to get privileged access to chips. Apple's been given early access to new Core processors in the past, and there are rumors floating around that they're going to get prime access to the version of Haswell with the most GPU firepower, leaving Windows OEMs to (or so some of the Apple rumor sites presume) squabble over remaining components as they try to build their own high-end models. If Apple puts the new chips in its next MacBook Pros, I'm not how much benefit they'll be, since it's possible Apple is just pursuing more thin-ness by removing the dedicated graphics card. Still, this aspect of the Wintel empire has always intrigued me.
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