Intel lost the tablet war -- is the desktop next?

With meager sales of Windows-based tablets predicted till 2017, the door is open for ARM to establish a beachhead on your desk

Intel is losing the multi-billion-dollar tablet war. Tied to Microsoft (whose own Windows Phone "Mango" doesn't use Intel's x86 processors), it's way behind the transformation sweeping the computing world. I'd never count Intel out, but the ARM architecture and its related ecosystem are ideally positioned to win a major share of the desktop of tomorrow.

The latest sign of Intel's woes is contained in a forecast by DisplaySearch, a research firm focused on displays and related supply chains. The company foresees tablet sales of approximately 325 million in 2017, up from about 50 million this year. That's significantly lower than forecasts by groups like Gartner, perhaps due to counting methodology. However, the really interesting point is this: Only about 17 million, or a bit more than 5 percent of those tablets, will be powered by Intel x86 CPUs.

[ Intel is betting on its planned revamped Core i5 chips in 2013 and the success of Windows 8 to reverse ARM's momentum. | Compare the security and management capabilities of iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, and more in InfoWorld's Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF report. ]

"Unlike notebook and netbook PCs, where consumers have chosen products based on the processor or PC vendor, consumers of new mobile devices care more about what they can do with the devices, which is associated more with the device applications and services," says Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for research firm In-Stat and a co-author of the report.

Exactly. The days when anyone really cared about the battle between Intel and AMD are long over. People want their devices to help them work or play, and increasingly that's a function of a mobile device. Neither McGregor nor anyone else is saying that the desktop is disappearing. It's not. But it is being redefined.

The post-PC future has already begun, using ARM chips
Several of my colleagues at InfoWorld have posited a future in which the desktop or laptop computer becomes specialized, taking the same place in the personal computing hierarchy that the workstation used to occupy: a tool for performing calculation-intensive work in which weight, battery life, and heat are nonissues. In the spot now occupied by the laptop will be a mobile device of some kind, probably an improved version of the tablet or even a smartphone.

We got a glimpse of that earlier this year, when Motorola Mobility launched the Atrix 4G, which uses Nvidia's dual-core Tegra 2, a powerful ARM-based chip. When docked, the Atrix becomes a light desktop PC (equivalent to a netbook), complete with an 11.6-inch display and a full keyboard. Sure, the Atrix has many limitations, but who would have thought just a couple of years ago that a pocket-sized device would ever have so much power? And then there's the iPad, which has some desktop-level apps such as Keynote and iMovie already available.

Less heat, more developers
Richard Shim, the other author of the DisplaySearch report, makes a great point: As we all know, developers are the lifeblood of any platform. Windows, of course, has the largest developer community in the world. But moving those x86 developers to Windows Phone (or any mobile device) will be problematic. "If you're used to developing a $20 (or more) application, why do you want to develop one that sells for 99 cents?" he asks.

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