Is this the beginning of the end of the personal computing industry as we knew it? Is this the first nail in the coffin of Wintel -- or, as geeks have termed it for decades, the Wintel conspiracy? And, lastly, is this Steve Jobs’ final revenge, as he rides off into the sunset?
Many years ago -- I think it was 1992-- Fortune carried a joint interview with Bill Gates and Jobs, perhaps the only one ever. Jobs was then more or less out in the cold, having been thrown out of Apple, and struggling to make something out of NeXT Computers, while Gates ruled the world. In that interview, Jobs said—and I quote from memory -- that he was very uncomfortable with the fact that anyone who wanted to get into desktop computing had to “pass through the narrow orifice called Microsoft”. The same could have been said about Intel too.
The two companies have traditionally enjoyed near-monopolistic dominance in the PC business. They grew and thrived in lock-step: as Microsoft developed newer versions of Windows, Intel built newer processors that would run the newer Windows. Or, as conspiracy theorists put it, Microsoft would keep launching clunkier and heavier software and Intel making more powerful processors, neither of which the average PC user needed, but had little option but to pay and upgrade.
But this week, Microsoft and Intel have announced that their marriage is now an open one. Microsoft’s Windows 8 will also run on ARM processors (the market leader by far in mobile devices and tablets), and Intel will work closely with Google so that Google’s Android operating system (the leader in smartphones) works perfectly with Intel’s new processors.
Till now, neither Microsoft nor Intel has been able to make any headway in the mobile devices and tablets market. So, the decades-old partners are jumping into bed with each other’s biggest foes.
They don’t have a choice, and the reason is quite simple; it’s just two words long: Steve Jobs.
With the iPhone and the iPad, Jobs changed the paradigm of mobile computing, and etched out the outlines of the post-PC era. Microsoft and Intel, caught napping, are now scrambling to get traction in a totally new battlefield. Smartphone sales are growing by leaps and bounds, and in tablets, the iPad -- which has its own operating system and uses ARM processors -- is far ahead of everyone else, while PC sales are slowing.
Of course, however fast the tablet market grows, and however much cloud computing is touted, the PC is going to be around for a very long time yet. And Microsoft and Intel will always have their stranglehold on that business. So, yes, Wintel is still around and very much will be -- there’s no shadow of a divorce on the horizon. But what is undeniable is that the marriage has been forced -- by the man who hated orifices -- to enter a new phase, one, in which freedom to enter into relationships outside the marriage -- even with people your partner detests -- has suddenly, amazingly, become a basic necessity.