Will Windows 8 Be the End of Intel’s Dominance in the CPU Arena?

“Let’s take our first attempt at a touchscreen based operating system for PCs and sell it on mouse-based desktops and laptops which have no touch screen. Because people will resist this change, we’ll strip out all the mouse-based user interface components. Unlike prior editions of Windows, we’ll change the licensing agreement so you can’t ‘downgrade’ to Windows 7 on the most popular platforms. Then, we’ll convince many PC manufacturers not to offer Windows 7 drivers, so even if a consumer is willing to pay us they won’t be able to install Windows 7 on their new hardware. Finally, we’ll impose this UEFI ‘secure boot’ feature on vendors to make it really hard to find a measure of mercy installing Linux or Android.”

As you read the above paragraph the deficiencies of Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy becomes obvious. Therefore, you have to conclude that nobody within Microsoft actually had the courage to utter those same words. One can only hope there is panic in the boardrooms at Microsoft, because, if there isn’t there should be: unlike the Windows Vista fiasco, Windows 8 could mark a turning point for the PC industry.

Windows 8 by itself is probably a bit better in certain regards to Windows 7, despite its weird, distracting, and ultimately annoying ‘tiles’ interface. When my recently purchased HP laptop started up, the screen was filled with tiles providing me real time updates about things like the weather in Buenos Aries and the News in Tel Aviv. Why in hell I would give a tinker’s damn about either is unclear, but it only took me about an hour to figure out how to remove most of the distracting bloatware. (Right-click on a tile, select uninstall).

Of course, starting up my Windows 8 notebook was another ordeal completely – you have to register with Microsoft’s version of an ‘app store’ and, in order to do so, you have to have an email account. Needless to say, it took me a while to figure out how to deal with this (ironically I used my Android phone), by which time the install had timed out (why would it do that) and I now have to figure out how to remove an ‘orphaned’ user account (because you are required to enter a satisfactory password, and I hope I can remember which permutation of the dozens of passwords I have to use nowadays in order to delete it. I remain hopeful.

In the decision to eliminate a familiar mouse based user interface, Microsoft had the inspiration to remove the familiar ‘start’ button and require you to move to ‘magic’ areas on the screen which causes little menus to arise. So, no ‘start’ to open or search for a program, help, or settings, rather you move your mouse pointer to the upper right hand corner and a series of choices, like ‘Search’ appears. Fair enough – you could get used to that, I suppose, even though you now have to switch to typing (is this easy on a touchscreen?). If you enter something like ‘Power Off’ or ‘Restart’ (after all, why would you expect a user to want to do either), you get nothing as a result. Until, of course, you ask to search settings (this is a setting?) and discover that powering off in now in the notification menu.

Look – I can get used to a different way of powering off my computer, but how is this an improvement, let alone consistent?

Closing a program can be a similar sort of ordeal: move to the upper right (where the little ‘X’ used to be) and click and drag down to the bottom. Some programs (like Windows Explorer) still have the little ‘X’, so you have to believe a Microsoft employee is doing penance for that inconsistency. Still, what used to be a mouse move and click is now move, click and hold and drag. Why? Happily, Alt-F4 seems to work (though, of course, that may vary from program to program). I remain optimistic that, over time the idiocies and inconsistencies of the user interface will become second nature or, alternatively, that I can learn enough ‘hot-key’ sequences to work around them. In other words, I am optimistic that the same skills I needed mastering WordPerfect in 1988 will assert themselves a full 25 years later. In the meanwhile, I and going to explore ‘Accessibility’ settings in Windows 8 because I am hoping that even Microsoft would draw the line in messing with those.

The effect on Microsoft would be obvious, unlike the Vista experience, people have more of a choice nowadays. Those who have a choice will look at spending their money on something else, though in my case spending 3x for an Apple laptop is of little interest, especially since all the software development and CAD tools I use are only available under Windows or Linux. Businesses will almost certainly avoid Windows 8 for as long as possible and only consider buying PCs which come with ‘downgrade’ rights and which have Windows 7 drivers, which eliminates a whole swath of the low-end systems favored by businesses. Linux or Android might be an option, but even that has been frustrated and complicated by Microsoft imposing UEFI ‘secure boot’ on hardware vendors. Either way, over the near term, through downgrades, installation of Linux (since you end up paying for a Windows 8 license anyway), Microsoft continues to tax technology.

You could, of course, opt for a Windows 8 based system with a touch screen (typically much more expensive than a mouse based system, and, in any event, not as useful), but if you are going to go ‘touch’ why not go with a popular platform such as iOS or Android? In other words, faced with a hard to use, touch screen based operating system, more consumers might be driven to move towards touch-screen devices like tablets, especially as costs come down as they surely will.

The success of Android (a touch screen ‘fork’ of Linux which is now the dominant mobile operating system) suggests to me that consumers who would not have considered it as an alternative for their desktop or laptop could easily be won over. After all, the Chromebook appears to be gaining some traction in the marketplace, being the top selling laptop on Amazon currently.

Over the near term, Microsoft may dream of winning consumers over to Windows 8, but unless they move quickly, odds are they are simply going to drive them to new platforms like Linux and Android. You might dismiss this as an impossibility, but take a look at Research in Motion’s implosion – they ignored the web, believing, falsely, that they knew better, and that, in any event, their overwhelming dominance in the enterprise was not assailable. They were wrong. Microsoft is wrong in believing that its position as the dominant PC operating system is unassailable. Their best hope as this juncture is to release a service pack or overlay which at least restores some level of usability to Windows 8. Then they can hope that, all evidence to the contrary, touchscreens will take off in the PC market and they’ll have a ready solution already out there. It will be a damned close run thing, even if they enter damage control mode immediately.

Now, how might this impact Intel? Well, nobody really cares much about the CPU their gadgets are using. They really don’t because they interact with software, not caches or bus interface units or cores. Users do care about performance, up to a point, and beyond that point they are indifferent. Consider the success of video game consoles: are they bought for what they do or the elegance of the underlying platform?

If you are running Windows, you care a lot about which processor you have, because if it isn’t Intel or AMD, very little of your software is going to run. That is the flaw in the Windows/ARM fantasy: yes, something which looks like Windows may be running, but none of your application software will run unless it has specifically been re-written for Windows/ARM. A similar reality holds if you are running a Linux, however, in that case, most of the applications are open source and have already been (or soon will be) modified and tested for whatever platform you may be running, be it ARM or x86.

In other words, as interest shifts from Windows 8 towards something which may or may not be better, but certainly isn’t much worse, indifference as to CPU architecture shifts accordingly. Once an heterogeneous PC environment emerges, Intel will be in serious trouble. Unlike Microsoft, which could operate as a cash cow for many years, Intel needs to spend a lot of money on R&D and capital investment in order to maintain its lead on the pack. Take a look at AMD to see what could be in Intel’s future.

Intel can only hope sanity prevails at Microsoft before it is too late.