At CES 2011, Ballmer told the world Windows would “fork”, that it would also run on lower power ARM chips for mobile devices. This was seen as a momentous breach in the long-standing Wintel duopoly. Two years later, the ARM tooth of the fork looks short and dull.

This is what I wrote almost two years ago:

After years of monogamy with the x86 architecture, Windows will soon run on ARM processors.

As in any divorce, Microsoft and Intel point fingers at one another. Intel complains about Microsoft’s failure to make a real tablet OS. They say MS has tried to shoehorn “Windows Everywhere” onto a device that has an incompatible user interface, power management, and connectivity requirements while the competition has created device-focused software platforms.

Microsoft rebuts: It’s Intel’s fault. Windows CE works perfectly well on ARM-based devices, as do Windows Mobile and now Windows Phone 7. Intel keeps telling us they’re “on track”, that they’ll eventually shrink x86 processors to the point where the power dissipation will be compatible with smartphones and tablets. But…when?

Today, a version of Windows (RT) does indeed run on an ARM processor, on Microsoft’s Surface tablet-PC hybrid. Has Microsoft finally served Intel with divorce papers?

Not so fast. The market’s reaction to Redmond’s ambitious Surface design has fallen far short of the heights envisioned in the company’s enthusiastic launch: Surface machines aren’t flying off Microsoft Store shelves. Ballmer himself admits sales are “modest” (and then quickly backpedals); Digitimes, admittedly not always reliable, quotes suppliers who say that Surface orders have been cut by half; anecdotally, but amusingly, field research by Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster (who can be a bit excitable) shows zero Surfaces sold during a two hour period at the Mall of America on Black Friday, while iPads were selling at a rate of 11-an-hour.

Traditional PC OEMs aren’t enthusiastic either. Todd Bradley, head of HP’s Personal Systems Group, is unimpressed:

“It tends to be slow and a little kludgey as you use it .…”

Acer exec Linxian Lang warns:

“Redmond will have to eat ‘hard rice’ with Surface…it should stick to its more readily-chewed software diet.”

To be sure, there are happy Surface users, such as Steve Sinofsky, the former Windows Division President, as captured in lukew’s Instagram picture:

(An aside: I went back to Sinofsky’s 8,000 words blog post that lovingly describes the process of developing “WOA” — Windows on ARM. At the time, WOA was presented as part of the Windows 8 universe. Later, Microsoft swapped the “8″ designation and chose to use “RT” instead. These naming decisions aren’t made lightly. Is there any wonder why WOA was moved out of the Windows 8 camp?)

It’s possible that the jury is still out… Surface sales could take off, Windows RT could be embraced by leading PC OEMs… but what are the odds? In addition to the tepid reception from customers and vendors alike, Microsoft must surmount the relentless market conquest of Android and iOS tablets whose numbers (210 million units) are expected to exceed laptop sales next year.

So, no… the Wintel Divorce isn’t happening. Intel’s x86 chips will remain the processors of choice to run Windows. Next month, we’ll have CES and its usual burst of announcements, both believable and dubious (remember when 2010 was declared the Year Of The Tablet PC?). We’ll have to sort the announcements that are merely that from those that will yield an actual device, but in the end I doubt we’ll see many new and really momentous Windows RT products out there.

Microsoft’s lackluster attempt at Post-PC infidelity doesn’t help Intel in its efforts to gain a foothold in the mobile world. Intel’s perennial efforts to break into the mobile market with lower power, lower cost x86 chips have, also perennially, failed. As a result, there is renewed speculation about a rapprochement between Intel and Apple, that the Santa Clara microprocessor giant could become an ardent (and high-volume) ARM SoC foundry.

As discussed here, some of this makes sense: Samsung is Apple’s biggest and most successful competitor in the smartphone/tablet space, spending billions more than anyone else in global marketing programs. At the same time, the South Korean company is Apple’s only supplier of ARM chips. Intel has the technology and manufacturing capacity to become an effective replacement for Samsung.

This wouldn’t be an easy decision for Intel: the volumes are high — as high as 415M ARM chips for 2013 according to one analyst — but the margins are low. And Intel doesn’t do low margins. Because of the Wintel duopoly, Intel’s x86 chips have always commanded a premium markup. Take Windows out of the picture and the margin disappears.

(As another aside, the 415,000 ARM chips number seems excessive. Assuming about 50 million iPhone 5s and 15 million iPads in the current quarter, and using the 4X rule of thumb for the following calendar year, we land somewhere between 250M and 300M ARM chips for Apple in 2013.)

Also, Intel would almost certainly not be Apple’s sole supplier of ARM chips. Yes, Apple needs to get out of its current and dangerous single source situation. But Tim Cook’s Supply Chain Management expertise will come into play to ensure that Apple doesn’t fall into a similar situation with Intel, that the company will secure at least a second source, such as the rumored TSMC.

The speculation by an RBC analyst that Intel will offer its services to build ARM chips for the iPhone on the condition Apple picks an x86 device for the iPad is nonsensical: Apple won’t fork iOS. Life is complicated enough with OS X on Intel and iOS on ARM.

Historically, a sizable fraction of Intel’s profits came from the following comparison. Take two microprocessor chips of equal “merit”: manufacturing cost, computing output, power dissipation… And add one difference: one runs Windows, the other doesn’t. Which one will get the highest profit margin?

In the ARM world and its flurry of customized chips and software platforms, the “runs Windows” advantage is no longer. ARM chips generate significantly lower margins than in the Intel-dominated world (its competitor AMD is ailing).

This leaves the chip giant facing a choice: It can have a meager meal at the tablet/smartphone fest, or not dine at all at the mobile table…while it watches its PC business decline.

In other news… Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, unexpectedly announced he’ll leave next May, a couple years ahead of the company’s mandatory 65-year retirement age. No undignified exit here. Intel’s Board pointedly stated they’ll be looking outside as well as inside for a successor, another unusual move in a company that so far stuck to successions orchestrated around carefully groomed execs. This could be seen as a sanction for Otellini missing the mobile wave and, much more important, a desire to bring new blood willing and able to look past the old x86 orthodoxy.


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