Sunday, November 27th 2011

Wintel Alliance Slowly Crumbling, ARM To Eventually Rule The Desktop?

The writing has been on the wall for a while now, that the close relationship between Microsoft and Intel (and by extension AMD) is crumbling into dust. In fact, they have never really been the best of friends. It has been clear since Microsoft unveiled that Windows 8 would run natively on ARM processors that things would never be quite the same again. Apart from some niche server variants of Windows, which could run on Itanium and other processors, all the previous desktop versions, including Windows 7, have run on x86 (and x64 for the last 6 years or so) processors.

However, Microsoft is keen to increase its presence in the lucrative smartphone and tablet market, where it's not had much success so far, getting comprehensively trounced by Android and Apple. Microsoft would be happy to use an x86/x64 processor for this application, but here, the limiting factor is the energy source, the battery, forcing the entire device to consume very little power if it's to run for more than 5 minutes. To meet this requirement, processors based on the ARM architecture have met this need admirably for years, with excellent performance while the Intel x86 variants have not (see video below). This has lead Microsoft to forge a relationship with a new processor manufacturer, Qualcomm, who make their own variant of the ARM processor, called Snapdragon. In fact, the relationship is so close now, that Windows Phone 7 only runs on Qualcomm ARM chips.

Having Windows run on two processor architectures concurrently inherently puts them into competition, creating an uneasy, unstable coexistence (witness the death of the other architectures in the Windows server space) so it seems reasonable to expect that Qualcomm will end up competing head to head with Intel at some point. This should make for a very interesting situation, given Intel's strength and Microsoft's strength, which could be used to invest in Qualcomm to help it compete with Intel in the performance desktop market, which would be expensive and difficult in terms of R&D. Perhaps an alliance with AMD or IBM, given their design expertise could also be on the cards? Of course, the major show stopper for a full-on ARM onslaught into the desktop space is that "legacy" x86/x64 apps - which the whole world runs right now - either won't run at all, or will run poorly under some sort of emulator. The fact that all current ARM chips are physically optimised for low power rather than all-out data processing performance really doesn't help the situation, either.

For the moment, let's assume that this problem is successfully overcome, perhaps by porting various key apps over to ARM say. Due to the significant efficiency and performance improvements of the ARM architecture (see video below) x86 begins to be phased out, eventually disappearing. Now, where does this leave Intel? To go bust, obviously, as it can't sell any more x86 chips. No, of course not. Intel has had an ARM licence for years, so it seems logical that it would put its many superb data processing enhancement technologies into ARM chips, to create monsters that are capable of the blistering speeds we see today from x86 chips and then some. Intel really, really won't like this situation though. Why? Because at the moment, it's only proper competitor in the x86/x64 space is AMD, which conveniently for Intel, is some considerable way behind with its flagship Bulldozer architecture. One competitor. Easy to take care of. Could probably kill its x86 business if it wanted to, just by accelerating the performance of its chips by 50%. But then that pesky Competition Commission would start investigating…

However, the ARM CPU is made by literally hundreds of different companies, since ARM Holdings is a fabless company and makes its money by licensing the rights to make the processor. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see that some big hitter like IBM, who has similar expertise in building high performance processors (think PowerPC and POWER) could start competing with a high performance desktop variant of the ARM architecture. AMD will likely do the same, if they want to remain as a CPU manufacturer (they'd still have the profitable graphics card business to fall back on, so wouldn't die). Suddenly, Intel has lots of stiff competition from all sides and that extremely profitable niche that it has sat in for the last 30+ years due to licence exclusivity evaporates, perhaps eventually becoming a me-too commodity player with razor thin margins. Very painful, very humiliating, totally unthinkable. Maybe this is the real reason why Intel only ever made a half-hearted attempt with its Xscale ARM processors and the product line never really took off? It would have to literally be forced like this to make anything more of it.

So, you can see how it's completely in Microsoft's interest to move to ARM and absolutely not for Intel to do so. They now both want diametrically different things out of their long term relationship, so no wonder it's cooling off. Any bets on when the divorce papers will hit?

And now for that video. The short video below, originally found in an interesting geek.com article, compares a 1.6 GHz dual core Atom CPU in a netbook against a development board using a Cortex-A9 ARM CPU, configured as a dual core system, running at a mere 500 MHz. Yes, just 500 MHz. The results? Even with the netbook having a graphics accelerator and the ARM dev system not having one, the ARM was only slightly slower than the Atom! Of course, it consumed a lot less power than the Atom CPU too, which is critical. Note that this video dates from Jan 2010 and there's newer versions of both products now. However, it's still valid today, as the performance balance hasn't changed much between the two processor architectures. This is because the differences are inherent to them (x86 is hot and inefficient, basically) so it doesn’t really matter how much each one is tweaked, the performance ratios will stay roughly the same.

Sources: Sign On Sandiego (lots of extra info, well worth a read) and TechEye
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84 Comments on Wintel Alliance Slowly Crumbling, ARM To Eventually Rule The Desktop?

#1
FordGT90Concept
"I go fast!1!11!1!"
Intel has a huge process advantage on most ARM offerings. I think Intel could make an x86 processor that is highly competitive in the smartphone market. It kind of makes me wonder why they haven't.

ARM doesn't have much hope of competing on desktops. All the applications you currently use won't work (including all games previously made).
Posted on Reply
#2
Lionheart
The Skynet program has been authorised ^_^
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#3
micropage7
one that intel or amd fail is the low powered processor in smartphone and we can see that ARM holds the smart phone level and intel/amd stay in desktop and laptop or tablets
i guess it will be like that. ARM strong enough in smart phone market, they wont risk their future with battling in desktop/laptop against intel or amd.
edit: if they plan to get in maybe they gonna put in low or mid range, i think its pretty reasonable since they have power in it
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#4
Wile E
Power User
ARM will never fully take over on the desktop while still maintaining it's power efficiency. It's reduced instruction sets allow for reduced consumption. Start adding instruction sets that our current apps can take advantage of, and it will start to lose it's edge in power efficiency.

We use x86 on the desktop because they are more powerful, not because they are the most power efficient.
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#5
Hayder_Master
I guess it's miss typo in title or maybe im wrong 'Wintel'.
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#6
Wile E
Power User
by: Hayder_Master
I guess it's miss typo in title or maybe im wrong 'Wintel'.
No, it's short for Windows and Intel.
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#7
newtekie1
Semi-Retired Folder
That is nice for a smartphone, basically allowing a smartphone/tablet to run an full OS. Of course you have to find a way to cram enough space into a smartphone to run a full OS. Smartphones generally have a 16GB or 32GB SD card at best, good luck fitting Win8 on that with any usable space left over.

The x86 architecture isn't going anywhere in the desktop market. Look how long it took for x64 to take over.

And lets talk about performance. The video only shows me one thing, how slow ARM is. I guess it is fine if you are rendering a few low end sites with no moving flash/HTML5 elements. And that is generally the site type accessed by smartphones. However, even rendering generic sites with just text and some graphics the ARM processor was noticeably slower. I'd hate to see it handle some flash sites, or even youtube with HD video running. I bet it would fall on it's face compared to the Atom.

Is there anyone here that honestly thinks Intel couldn't created an x86 processor that competes with ARM processors in performance and power consumption?

Look at what we already have. The Cortex-A9 has a TDP of 1.9w @2Ghz, the Atom Z550@2GHz is only at 2.5w. That isn't a huge margin for Intel to make up. Hell, Intel could probably make that up by cutting out the Hyperthreading silicon, dropping a few instruction sets and the silicon related to those, and cutting the L2 in half.

Or better yet, carve out a new product using the things they've learned with Sandybridge. I don't have a doubt they could manage very close to 2GHz with the same or better performance to what ARM can offer.
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#8
p3ngwin1
by: FordGT90Concept
Intel has a huge process advantage on most ARM offerings. I think Intel could make an x86 processor that is highly competitive in the smartphone market. It kind of makes me wonder why they haven't.

ARM doesn't have much hope of competing on desktops. All the applications you currently use won't work (including all games previously made).
atually no, Intel has had MASSIVE trouble getting any x86 processor to work with the power efficiencies needed for smartphones. they've been trying for YEARS.

they made the ATOM chip, by castrating existing desktop architectures (cutting cache, pipelines, atc) and still they couldn't get a chip to perform for use in a smartphone or tablet that would sip less than a WATT of power under load, and less than 1/4 WATT at idle.

there process advantage does not make them magically have an architecture that performs efficiently in netbooks, tablets and smartphones. they tried for years, and only now they have a decent processor offering approaching tablet form with good battery life. they still have years to go before they enter the smartphone market.

ARM is encroaching on x86 in a bif way, because it's easier for them to evolve their architecture for more performance at the desktop and enterprise/server than it is for Intel to figure out how to make portable efficient chips for smartphones, etc.

with Microsoft making Windows on ARM, a whole new generation of apps and games will be made, that means market share AWAY from x86. the more developers that make ARM software, the less that x86 dominates.

you think that just because x86 is massive it is too big to lose it's crown?

you would do well to read up on some history, as well as notice what is happening in the portable OS and device market right now. would you have said Apple's iOS would always dominate because it had the most developers and software ? or would you realise that Android would take everything from Apple's mobile market and dominate around the world ?

things change, and right now there are HUGE changes happening in the OS and processor architecture worlds. the last 30 years of x86 are already eroding, and the same is happening for the desktop and mobile OS shares.

wintel is dying quicker than ever.
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#9
jmcslob
No....WIntel will stay strong because of newer battery technologies and smaller die size....It might not seem plausible now but neither did Today's smartphones 10 years ago
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#10
newtekie1
Semi-Retired Folder
by: p3ngwin1
atually no, Intel has had MASSIVE trouble getting any x86 processor to work with the power efficiencies needed for smartphones. they've been trying for YEARS.

they made the ATOM chip, by castrating existing desktop architectures (cutting cache, pipelines, atc) and still they couldn't get a chip to perform for use in a smartphone or tablet that would sip less than a WATT of power under load, and less than 1/4 WATT at idle.

there process advantage does not make them magically have an architecture that performs efficiently in netbooks, tablets and smartphones. they tried for years, and only now they have a decent processor offering approaching tablet form with good battery life. they still have years to go before they enter the smartphone market.
I disagree. Atom was based on an extremely modified Core architecture, AFAIK. And is a product that they kind of threw together a few years ago, and haven't really done anything with it. And they still managed to get the processor power consumption down to the 2 watt range.

Now look at the current Sandybridge and what it is capable of. They have dual-core Sandybridge processors, full powered full featured chips, that sip just 17w. Image what they could get that down to just by ditching the silicon for HT, and the 3MB of L3 cache? And that is with a graphics processor, drop that and what does the power consumption numbers drop to? Cripple the memory controller(who needs dual channel 32GB RAM on a smart phone?), cut out the PCI-E lanes(don't need those on a smart phone), drop the unused instruction sets and the silicon related to those. What would the power consumption numbers look like then?

If Intel was worried, and they wanted to put their effort into it, I have no doubt they could put out an x86 processor today based on an extremely modified Sandybridge that could pull under 1w under load, and idle at under 0.25w and outperform the competition.
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#11
MikeMurphy
All of you are getting your panties in a twist over tech specs.

Guess what - it doesn't matter.

I can Skype, Facebook, send emails and play Angry Birds with a small fraction of the power already available today.

The only relevant 'tech specs' are that Intel is currently incapable of competing with ARM on the all-important idle power consumption. If they are able to address that then they can enter the smartphone race (albeit very late to the party). Intel is currently working very hard at this.

And to Wile E, people use Wintel because that's what the market determined was popular from the 1980s. They didn't choose it because of any tech related specification or power consumption.

Dorks bought a 386sx33mhz w/ 2mb of ram, a 80mb HDD and a Trident video card sitting on an ISA bus. People bought IBM-compatible PCs.
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#12
Frick
Fishfaced Nincompoop
by: MikeMurphy

I can Skype, Facebook, send emails and play Angry Birds with a small fraction of the power already available today.
But I can't play a buttload (all of them actually) of games, do web design, render movies or anything on an ARM system. The problem I have with it has nothing to do with hardware, but with software. There's a gargantuan library of programs for Windows, all from nonsense to very advanced and everything in between. As long as any ARM system does not have that, I'm not interested, at least not as a desktop.
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#13
Completely Bonkers
When Windows for ARM is released.... the Atom is dead. Intel have failed over the last 3 years to sufficiently improve the Atom and its chipset. (Improvement being performance or power consumption according to Moores law). The Atom chipset was Intels real failing. FOr the sake of one $, they should have paired Atom with mobile ULV chipset from the outset. UNFORTUNATLEY, it was the result of large corporation silo mentality, one department not cooperating with another.
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#14
HalfAHertz
by: newtekie1
That is nice for a smartphone, basically allowing a smartphone/tablet to run an full OS. Of course you have to find a way to cram enough space into a smartphone to run a full OS. Smartphones generally have a 16GB or 32GB SD card at best, good luck fitting Win8 on that with any usable space left over.

The x86 architecture isn't going anywhere in the desktop market. Look how long it took for x64 to take over.

And lets talk about performance. The video only shows me one thing, how slow ARM is. I guess it is fine if you are rendering a few low end sites with no moving flash/HTML5 elements. And that is generally the site type accessed by smartphones. However, even rendering generic sites with just text and some graphics the ARM processor was noticeably slower. I'd hate to see it handle some flash sites, or even youtube with HD video running. I bet it would fall on it's face compared to the Atom.

Is there anyone here that honestly thinks Intel couldn't created an x86 processor that competes with ARM processors in performance and power consumption?

Look at what we already have. The Cortex-A9 has a TDP of 1.9w @2Ghz, the Atom Z550@2GHz is only at 2.5w. That isn't a huge margin for Intel to make up. Hell, Intel could probably make that up by cutting out the Hyperthreading silicon, dropping a few instruction sets and the silicon related to those, and cutting the L2 in half.

Or better yet, carve out a new product using the things they've learned with Sandybridge. I don't have a doubt they could manage very close to 2GHz with the same or better performance to what ARM can offer.
Just to clarify a bit here, the ARM chip is a SoC - a system of a chip it has all the peripherals on the same chip (I yhink some of them even integrate the ram on die) while Atom is still mostly a multi chip solution(I think they've shrunk it to just 2 or 3 chips in its latest iteration) and once you combine the power use of all of the chips it's still in the 8-10w range.
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#15
RejZoR
Since when does GMA950 anything to the web content? And they are bullshitting about netbook having artificial advantage. GMA950 does NOTHING to web content, it doesn't acccelerate Adobe Flash and it doesn't even accelerate web content in Firefox through HW acceleration. So what kind of advantage does it give to netbook? None at all... How do i know it's GMA950? Because that's what they are comparing it to is the first generation ACER Aspire One with Atom N270 and GMA950. Which quite frankly wasn't anything to brag about even when it was released. I had it and it was fine, but compared to AMD Fusion, it's like bringing a toothpick to a katana fight... Power usage is not all that different, yet battery lasts much longer and i can work with much more demanding apps.

I like ARM because it's a comeptition and as such it can only be good for users but sometimes it's better to say nothing than talk BS...
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#16
Damn_Smooth
qubit, I won't quit loving your news posts even if I don't agree with them. When ARM has something that can compete with Llano, or an I3, wake me up. Atom was a failure to me the moment it wasn't released in the cell phones it was intended for.
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#17
newtekie1
Semi-Retired Folder
by: HalfAHertz
Just to clarify a bit here, the ARM chip is a SoC - a system of a chip it has all the peripherals on the same chip (I yhink some of them even integrate the ram on die) while Atom is still mostly a multi chip solution(I think they've shrunk it to just 2 or 3 chips in its latest iteration) and once you combine the power use of all of the chips it's still in the 8-10w range.
The Cortex A9 chip they are comparing it to is not a SoC, it is just the processor, probably with a lot of integrated aspects compared to the Atom, but still relies a lot on outside help as well. But as I said, Atom was something they just threw together using the old Core architecture, and then just kind of left it alone.

Doing the same based on Sandybridge, where everything except for data I/O is on the die already, and they still manage 17w, gives a good example of what Intel can do. And if they put their minds to it, and see ARM as a serious threat, there is no doubt in my mind they could put something out using a highly modified Sandybridge that consumes 1W or less and idles at a fraction of a W.

But either way you look at it, they are still trying to compare 2 products that aren't meant to be compared. Atom is a full fledged processor for a laptop/desktop computer, while ARM is really a smartphone processor. And if ARM every does make a serious move to desktops/laptop, they will be nothing more than web/media devices at best, certainly not something that will rule the market.
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#18
RejZoR
The specific example with Atom N270 and 945GS chipset is especially funny because just chipset alone consumes as much power as all the remaining components alone. Atom itself consumes a ffraction of a power where chipset was like 8W if not more.
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#19
paralityk
by: newtekie1
That is nice for a smartphone, basically allowing a smartphone/tablet to run an full OS. Of course you have to find a way to cram enough space into a smartphone to run a full OS. Smartphones generally have a 16GB or 32GB SD card at best, good luck fitting Win8 on that with any usable space left over.

The x86 architecture isn't going anywhere in the desktop market. Look how long it took for x64 to take over.

And lets talk about performance. The video only shows me one thing, how slow ARM is. I guess it is fine if you are rendering a few low end sites with no moving flash/HTML5 elements. And that is generally the site type accessed by smartphones. However, even rendering generic sites with just text and some graphics the ARM processor was noticeably slower. I'd hate to see it handle some flash sites, or even youtube with HD video running. I bet it would fall on it's face compared to the Atom.

Is there anyone here that honestly thinks Intel couldn't created an x86 processor that competes with ARM processors in performance and power consumption?

Look at what we already have. The Cortex-A9 has a TDP of 1.9w @2Ghz, the Atom Z550@2GHz is only at 2.5w. That isn't a huge margin for Intel to make up. Hell, Intel could probably make that up by cutting out the Hyperthreading silicon, dropping a few instruction sets and the silicon related to those, and cutting the L2 in half.

Or better yet, carve out a new product using the things they've learned with Sandybridge. I don't have a doubt they could manage very close to 2GHz with the same or better performance to what ARM can offer.
Sorry but it's simple as that: they can't. ARM is superior on very base level + dedicated processing units spread across SoC make the case even worse for x86.

"The Cortex-A9 has a TDP of 1.9w @2Ghz, the Atom Z550@2GHz is only at 2.5w."
This means that atom would be trashed by ARM performace wise, GPU is already way faster, not to talk about rest of SoC, oh, yeah, SoC, no slow buses etc.
Posted on Reply
#20
Fourstaff
by: paralityk
Sorry but it's simple as that: they can't. ARM is superior on very base level + dedicated processing units spread across SoC make the case even worse for x86.

"The Cortex-A9 has a TDP of 1.9w @2Ghz, the Atom Z550@2GHz is only at 2.5w."
This means that atom would be trashed by ARM performace wise, GPU is already way faster, not to talk about rest of SoC, oh, yeah, SoC, no slow buses etc.
When ARM's FLOPs catch up with x86, it might pose a challenge. Otherwise, we will still see x86 everywhere, perhaps in less places than before as machines for simpler tasks like surfing the web gets replaced by ARM. The deciding battle will be of course tablets vs netbooks, which is why Intel is pushing for cheap ultrabooks to take tablets head on.
Posted on Reply
#21
suraswami
by: newtekie1
That is nice for a smartphone, basically allowing a smartphone/tablet to run an full OS. Of course you have to find a way to cram enough space into a smartphone to run a full OS. Smartphones generally have a 16GB or 32GB SD card at best, good luck fitting Win8 on that with any usable space left over.

The x86 architecture isn't going anywhere in the desktop market. Look how long it took for x64 to take over.

And lets talk about performance. The video only shows me one thing, how slow ARM is. I guess it is fine if you are rendering a few low end sites with no moving flash/HTML5 elements. And that is generally the site type accessed by smartphones. However, even rendering generic sites with just text and some graphics the ARM processor was noticeably slower. I'd hate to see it handle some flash sites, or even youtube with HD video running. I bet it would fall on it's face compared to the Atom.

Is there anyone here that honestly thinks Intel couldn't created an x86 processor that competes with ARM processors in performance and power consumption?

Look at what we already have. The Cortex-A9 has a TDP of 1.9w @2Ghz, the Atom Z550@2GHz is only at 2.5w. That isn't a huge margin for Intel to make up. Hell, Intel could probably make that up by cutting out the Hyperthreading silicon, dropping a few instruction sets and the silicon related to those, and cutting the L2 in half.

Or better yet, carve out a new product using the things they've learned with Sandybridge. I don't have a doubt they could manage very close to 2GHz with the same or better performance to what ARM can offer.
Thats exactly what I was thinking, Intel has money and technology, if they want to they can spin out an entire low TDP line for mobile devices. If the need comes those little monsters will be unleashed.
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#22
ensabrenoir
by: Fourstaff
When ARM's FLOPs catch up with x86, it might pose a challenge. Otherwise, we will still see x86 everywhere, perhaps in less places than before as machines for simpler tasks like surfing the web gets replaced by ARM. The deciding battle will be of course tablets vs netbooks, which is why Intel is pushing for cheap ultrabooks to take tablets head on.
The netbook phase is over. Tablets took over when Steve called them a pad and put an I in front of it. intel is aiming for somewhere in the middle. Success will be determined by the masses...not the learned. Without an "it" factor or cultural icon promoting it and because of the use of the word Ultra... intel has a mountain to climb with this one. Their greatest hope is that without Steve the pad phase will fade into FAD-dom.

Intel should however invest heavily in a serious answer to arm.... things change. Just ask the dinosaurs.
Posted on Reply
#23
Fourstaff
by: ensabrenoir
The netbook phase is over. Tablets took over when Steve called them a pad and put an I in front of it. intel is aiming for somewhere in the middle. Success will be determined by the masses...not the learned. Without an "it" factor or cultural icon promoting it and because of the use of the word Ultra... intel has a mountain to climb with this one. Their greatest hope is that without Steve the pad phase will fade into FAD-dom.

Intel should however invest heavily in a serious answer to arm.... things change. Just ask the dinosaurs.
"MobileOS-pad" is here to stay, whether you like it or not. Its very efficient at what it does. I should have rephrase my "netbook", what I mean is a thin and light windows/mac/linux device with long battery and is price competitive against tablets. You cannot get rid of x86 easily yet, but when most of the utility programs migrate over we might be seeing ARM become more dominant over the others. Its still not feasible to ditch Wintel in favour of running ARM exclusively (server or consumer).

Intel's answer to ARM are Ultrabooks. Whether its their final answer, or the beginning of a series of answers I do not know. Either way their server business is still doing great, and I forsee them being the next IBM style company in a few more years(or decades).
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#24
theoneandonlymrk
i dont think it will kill off intel amd or anyone , it might squeeze proffits but intel and amd will if neccessary go with the flow of what will make them doe, either way x86/x64 architecture isnt going extinct anytime soon as corporate purchasing depts around the world wont be swithcing to arm just mobile devices
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#25
jihadjoe
I don't really buy into the 'wintel' alliance. Microsoft never locked Windows into Intel only platforms.

Windows NT was available for Alpha and Sparc, Windows XP added x64 extensions even when it was primarily AMD's domain and Intel didn't have a 64bit x86 proc.

With ARM increasingly overlapping with netbooks and tablet PCs, it only makes sense for the next Windows version to support ARM.
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