The Foundation Cracks: Intel, Microsoft At Odds Over Windows 8

The nascent tablet market segment has already strained the Wintel alliance; both Microsoft and Intel have made marketing/strategic decisions that the other isn't fond of. Intel's recent financial analyst day has only made things worse; Microsoft is quite unhappy with the CPU manufacturer's remarks regarding Windows 8. Microsoft's declaration that Windows 8 would run on ARM processors was one of the most talked about announcements of last January's CES, but Intel's remarks this week cast doubt on the usefulness of the ARM-flavored version of that operating system.

Renée James, Intel's general manager of the software & services group, claimed in his presentation that Microsoft's Windows for ARM would never offer any degree of legacy compatibility with x86 software. "On ARM, there'll be the new experience, which is very specifically around the mobile experience, specifically around tablet and some limited clamshell, with no legacy OS, James told The Register. "Our competitors will not be running legacy applications. Not now. Not ever."

Microsoft's response to James' statements snarled its way across the wire in a matter of hours.
Intel's statements during yesterday's Intel Investor Meeting about Microsoft's plans for the next version of Windows were factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading. From the first demonstrations of Windows on SoC, we have been clear about our goals and have emphasized that we are at the technology demonstration stage. As such, we have no further details or information at this time.
Intel is plenty interested in Windows 8, but is simultaneously trying to sell the market on the idea that Atom, not ARM, is the ideal ultra-mobile processor of the future. Microsoft is perfectly willing to support x86 ultra-mobile hardware, but wants to develop an operating system it can deploy on as many architectures as possible. Given that MS has already promised a version of Office that's ARM-compatible, Intel's declaration that there will be no legacy support is far from accurate.

It's only going to get worse

Legacy app support isn't the only point James raised; Ars Technica reports that the VP also implied only x86 versions of Windows would be able to switch from a tablet-friendly GUI to a standard desktop GUI—ARM systems would allegedly be stuck with only the new touch interface. The overall point of James' argument is that Intel doesn't just provide a CPU—it offers development tools, decades of experience, thorough documentation, and full legacy compatibility with virtually any app a person might install.

Microsoft's Terrible Touch Undoes Intel's Argument.

There's a gaping flaw in Intel's logic. "Full x86 legacy application support" makes for a great bullet point, but it's of dubious benefit in the real world. The overwhelming majority of x86 software created in the past 30 years was designed for a keyboard+mouse. The problems this creates are instantly apparent to anyone who tries to use a Windows 7 touch-enabled system. Unless the display uses a much lower resolution than normal, it can be insanely difficult to select options from the menu bar, navigate file trees, or seamlessly copy-paste content from one article to another.

Intel's expertise is unquestioned, but how much will it matter in the end?

There are very, very few games that would translate well; those that did would still require updates to enable touchscreen support. Intel does have something of an argument, insomuch as software vendors whose products translated well to touchscreens would have an easier time of porting their applications. We suspect, however, that future applications will fail or succeed based on their GUI design as much as their performance.

This may be part of why Intel is trying so hard to redefine the PC and reassert its importance in the face of new products. Intel's development ecosystem and decades of expertise are unmatched, but in this instance, not particularly useful. Despite the company's bold words, we suspect ARM presents a stiffer challenge than Santa Clara is currently willing to admit.