We already know that the Wintel duopoly isn't what it used to be. Sure, mainstream business systems and mid- to high-end consumer systems generally run Windows 7 and have "Intel Inside," but a whole lot of the computers you buy at Walmart run just fine with AMD chips. So do volume PCs from Dell and HP, among other major OEMs. And then there's the whole Mac thing, that happily knocked the Win out of Wintel.
But the real story these days isn't PC hardware, Windows vs. Mac, or Intel vs. AMD. It's mobile, mostly in the form of Android vs. iOS, but mostly just mobile in general. How can our handheld devices provide as much of the PC experience as possible, enable whole new experiences, and otherwise keep us connected? But guess what? Neither Intel nor AMD have been leading characters in this story up to this point. ARM-based processors have been eating everything else for lunch. Anand Chandrasekher, Intel's senior vice president and general manager of the Ultra Mobility Group (UMG) resigned because of it.
So the news from Intel that it was working with Google on Atom-powered tablets that would be released with the latest Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) tablet OS is a big deal for several reasons.
- Intel isn't throwing in the towel yet. Atom is an important, if low-margin, brand. It let Intel ride the netbook wave and make inroads in embedded devices. The company can't afford to not get some mileage out of during the tablet revolution.
- Google needs big name partners to crush the iPad. So far, Android tablets have all either been too expensive, too crappy, or an Acer Intel can bring some serious OEM muscle to the table and should be able to compete on price, too.
- Intel needs to ensure that it's fortunes aren't tied to any one platform or buyer type. Windows, enterprise users, consumers, whatever. Rather, it needs to leverage its massive production capability to be everywhere.
- Intel remains a very strong brand. It isn't just big name OEMs that Android needs, but enterprise credibility to make sure it can move past consumer tablets. Intel, if nothing else, has enterprise credibility by the bucket load.
Are Intel chips (or the x86 architecture in general) better than ARM chips for running Android on tablets? Probably not, especially with NVidia's high-performance Tecra systems available. However, more distribution, more choice, and more vendors plays well to the "open" message that Google keeps trying to sell for Android. The same strategy worked very well to grab mobile phone market share from Apple and RIM (although it certainly has had its downfalls). This is a win for Google and a win for Intel as it pushes to stay relevant in a world that doesn't need PCs anymore.