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Intel, ARM trade barbs over Windows 8, RT

Intel and ARM make the case for why the upcoming Windows operating systems are better on devices with their processors

With the big release of Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system fast approaching, the war of words between Intel and ARM has become more heated as the rivals gear up for the release of new touch-based devices with their processors.

The companies used the Computex trade show in Taipei as a sounding board about why the upcoming Windows OS was superior on tablets and laptops running on their processors. Intel said Windows virtually grew up on its x86 processors, painting ARM as the new kid on the block that cannot yet be trusted. ARM said that Windows devices based on its processors will attract a fresh user base with few ties with legacy PCs.

Microsoft's upcoming Windows OS will come in the Windows 8 edition for x86 chips and Windows RT for ARM devices. ARM dominates the tablet market, but Windows RT provides a path for Microsoft to establish a foothold and to compete with Apple's iOS and Google's Android OS.

The few ARM-based Windows RT devices shown at Computex took some attention away from Intel-based Windows 8 tablets and ultrabooks, which dominated the show. Asus announced Tablet 600, a Windows RT tablet running on Nvidia's Tegra 3 chip, and Acer said it would ship Windows RT devices in the first quarter next year. Qualcomm gave users a hands-on with prototype Windows RT devices.

Microsoft had to re-engineer the Windows RT code base for the OS to work on ARM processors. Though different, Windows 8 and Windows RT share common features such as the touch interface. But users will have to make a choice between Windows or ARM as applications are not compatible across platforms.

Intel has already started the rhetoric against ARM around Windows 8, with Intel's CEO Paul Otellini in May saying that ARM devices will be incompatible with existing Windows applications and drivers. Intel echoed that belief at Computex.

"Our expectation is Windows will be running best on Intel architecture," said Hermann Eul, president of Intel's Mobile Communications Group, in an interview.

Intel architecture has been optimized for Windows for generations and there is a large developer ecosystem for Windows on x86, Eul said. Intel chips will run a wider range of utilities and applications on both tablets and ultrabooks.

"On top of this comes that all the legacy customers have will work on Intel devices. That is an incredible value that should not be underestimated," Eul said.

But tablets with ARM processor became popular without Intel's help and that story becomes more compelling with Windows RT, said Simon Segars, executive vice president of the processor and physical intellectual property divisions at ARM, in an interview.

"Tablets achieved a 10 percent penetration rate in the U.S. in under two years. Now, if legacy software was a problem that wouldn't have happened. I just don't see that for Windows," Segars said. "I don't know anyone who's got a tablet and can't run Excel or can't run Pacman bought in 1998. It's just not been an barrier to adoption of tablets so far."

Calling the legacy software issue "overblown," Segars said there are always levels of incompatibility with every new OS. But that issue is trumped by the low-power consumption and long battery life of tablets with ARM processors.

"If you've essentially got that in a Windows environment, and access to Office and ... everything else that Microsoft has, that's going to be compelling to a lot of people," Segars said. "There's a greater [developer] opportunity for new things to come from that. The most entrepreneurial companies will take advantage of that."

PC maker Acer is taking a pragmatic approach, saying Windows on Intel is well-established, while Windows RT on ARM is a beginner where opportunities have yet to be explored.

Acer has high hopes for Windows RT devices, said Jim Wong, corporate president of Acer, in an interview.

"We have to give it a try. Users who have no burden of the so-called legacy, they enjoy a brand new experience. Everything touch, everything's forward-looking with some new devices," Wong said.

Users are dumping legacy software and moving forward, and ARM will bring a low-power and long-battery life element to devices that Acer finds attractive, Wong said.

The ARM platform will also be cheaper overall compared to the x86 architecture, but whether it is successful has yet to be determined.

"This is not going to happen overnight. It is going to be good business. But this is good for the whole industry and there will be winners in the end," Wong said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com


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