‘Wintel’ aims for grip on portable PCs

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Intel and Microsoft, the twin powers that long dominated the personal computing world, are bidding to outdo each other in paying Apple the ultimate compliment.

Nearly four years to the day after Steve Jobs first held aloft the MacBook Air, Intel on Monday sought to give a lift to a similar wave of extremely thin, lightweight PCs that it hopes will build a new moat around its core business.

Though the machines were first unveiled six months ago, Intel has chosen to use this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as a “coming-out party” for the new machines, which it has dubbed Ultrabooks and has predicted will quickly come to account for 40 per cent of laptop PC sales. Along with their portability, Intel also claims that it has moved closer to the long battery life and “instant-on” capability that has made Apple’s iPad the current role model for convenient computing.

Yet with tablets continuing to evolve and rival chip technologies making headway, this looks like a “desperate bid to stay relevant,” says Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Associates.

Matching the technological edge that lies behind Apple’s recent product hits – let alone securing a sustainable advantage – will be hard, he and other analysts say.

By next year, chipmakers like Qualcomm and Nvidia are likely to be boasting chips that can match most of the performance characteristics of Intel-based Ultrabooks, says Ian Thornton, head of investor relations at ARM, the UK-based chip design company. ARM’s designs are already used by these and other chipmakers to power most of the world’s smartphones and tablets, and performance advances are Intel’s worst nightmare.

Apple could itself launch an ARM-powered notebook by the end of this year that sets new standards in thinness and portability, adds Mr Kay. Also, with hardware makers pitching most of the machines at close to the $999 base price that Apple sells the Air, it will be hard to win over the personal buyers who are coming to influence even how corporate IT departments make their buying decisions, he says.

The Ultrabook push is just part of the bid by Intel and Microsoft to break into high-mobility devices that has become a persistent theme of the annual CES event, but which this year has assumed added urgency. At risk is the gravitational pull that Wintel – the name given to the combination of Microsoft’s operating system and Intel-designed chips – has long held over personal computing, thanks to their ability to attract the attention of other software developers. But with smartphones and tablets running on other company’s technology, time is starting to run out.

“Microsoft always owned the ecosystem of developers, but on this new platform, Apple is in the catbird seat,” says Rick Sherlund, software analyst at Nomura.

Also expected to feature prominently in Las Vegas this week are the latest attempts by Intel and Microsoft to break into smartphones, with Intel showing off a design running Google’s Android software and Microsoft aligning itself closely with Nokia.

When it comes to tablets, it will not be until the expected launch of Windows 8 operating system later this year that the old Wintel powers will be able to boast a true rival.

At stake will be whether machines using this software can trigger the enthusiasm of consumers, says Al Gillen, an analyst IDC.

There is a high chance of this happening, say optimists like Mr Sherlund. With screens that swivel back or detach to make tablets, the coming Windows 8 machines will finally push the software company and the PC ecosystem it leads into the tablet era, he adds.

Microsoft and Intel will certainly be hoping he is right.

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