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Will Microsoft’s Surface Mini Leave Intel in the Cold?

It's pretty obvious that, during the last several years, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) have seen their relationship erode quite substantially. Indeed, it seems that with Microsoft's continued pushing of its ARM (NASDAQ: ARMH  ) -based Windows RT operating system in its flagship line of Surface products, as well as its close ties with Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) on Windows Phone, Intel has become a second-class citizen to Microsoft. Will Microsoft keep trying to shut Intel out with its upcoming Surface Mini?

The Windows RT move -- it originally made sense
At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, Microsoft announced Windows RT, which meant support for ARM architecture processors. Back then, Microsoft seemed to sanction support for chips from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and NVIDIA. The idea here was that the next generation of Windows -- which was meant to extend to tablets -- would run on a broad range of SoCs from a number of vendors.

Microsoft's Surface 2. Powered by Windows RT and an NVIDIA Tegra 4. Source: Microsoft. 

At first, this move made perfect sense. At the time, Intel was still goofing around with abominations like Moorestown that offered neither the integration nor the performance/power to really be competitive in the tablet market as we know it, so Microsoft needed chip vendors that could deliver competitive product on time. Porting Windows to ARM, quite frankly, made perfect sense at the time, given Intel's apparent rank incompetence at producing competitive mobile chips.

Clover Trail changed the game -- Bay Trail ended it
While Windows RT made sense for tablets when Intel appeared to not be able to design a mobile chip to save its life, the launch of Intel's Clover Trail -- a low power, highly integrated SoC for tablets -- really put that argument to bed. It offered superior CPU performance to the Qualcomm Snapdragon and NVIDIA Tegra 3 that were available for Windows RT at the time (although it did lag on graphics), and offered extremely competitive power consumption.

Source: Intel. 

Following Clover Trail, Intel launched Bay Trail-T, which once again offered leadership CPU performance and offered graphics performance that was within the same ballpark as the best ARM-based products --  although, yes, Qualcomm and NVIDIA did offer superior graphics performance in Snapdragon 800/Tegra 4, respectively. More importantly, the Bay Trail-T offers full compatibility with full Windows 8.1 rather than Windows RT, which cannot run the millions of traditional Windows programs.

Microsoft keeps pushing RT, but will Surface Mini bring Intel closer?
Microsoft is hosting an event on May 20 at which it is reportedly launching a Surface Mini. This tablet is expected to pack Qualcomm silicon which, of course, implies that it will be running Windows RT and not Windows 8.1. Interestingly, the sources that claim that Qualcomm will power the Surface Mini also claim that Intel will be "participating" in the May 20 rollout.

This may mean that Microsoft is planning two models, perhaps a Surface Mini and Surface Mini Pro, the former powered by Qualcomm/Windows RT and the latter powered by Intel/Windows 8.1. If this is true, then this would signal that, perhaps the relationship between Microsoft and Intel isn't as bad as the company's prior aggressive marketing of Windows RT/Surface RT would have suggested.

Foolish bottom line
The development of Windows RT made sense back in the day -- Intel didn't have the right silicon for a mobile world. However, now that Intel is competitive in tablets and offers full Windows 8.1 application compatibility, it seems like a no-brainer for Microsoft to cool its jets on Windows RT and start promoting full Windows 8.1 (and successor) products with full X86 chips (i.e. Intel). We'll see at the Surface Mini launch whether the Intel/Microsoft relationship has been mended to any degree depending on what platform and silicon choices Microsoft makes for whatever it rolls out. 

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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 09, 2014, at 5:35 AM, BKT3 wrote:

    If they only offer an RT version, I'm out. Before the masses start to go on and on about how the desktop on the small screen is useless, stop telling me, as a consumer, what I want. I want a device to travel with which I can connect to a larger display and Bluetooth peripherals when I am at my desk. Today, this is the option you have on the Lenovo Thinkpad 8, which is probably the best option in the market today with its mini HDMI output. I have been waiting for the Surface Mini because I was hopeful it would one up the Lenovo Thinkpad 8 with: Active Stylus (got it), Immediate 4G availability (still pending for TP8), More than 2GB RAM (not with RT), faster processor (?), and 64 bit processing (not with RT). Had Lenovo offered the 4G version already, I probably would have bought it.

    If the Surface Mini is RT only, I'll probably wait for the TP8 with 4G and if I get impatient, I'll probably pay the premium for the Panasonic FZ-M1. The Panasonic is pricey but, as a consumer, the features I want are features for which I am willing to pay.

    For me, if the Surface Mini is RT only, the music playing at the event will be the funeral dirge for the Surface line. It will be proof Microsoft simply isn't paying attention to the consumer demands. This is the same sin Apple commits with fans of Swype; which, by the way, is why I plan on going with a W8.1 device (which has Touchpal as an option).

  • Report this Comment On May 10, 2014, at 4:42 PM, DaMuncher wrote:

    A lot depends on screen size. "Full Windows" compatibility is fairly useless in a 7" screen. It probably makes more sense to put RT / Windows Phone on 7" and below screen sizes, even if an x86 is under the hood.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 5:59 PM, Foolme2x wrote:

    It's not so much that "full Windows compatibility" is useless, as that it is fast becoming unnecessary and therefore unimportant. I still use MSFT's products for most "work" situations, though I'm sure I could get by without them. But if my time is worth anything, I've found that it just wouldn't be worth the effort to cut the cord to MSFT today. On the other hand a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in at least 25 years, I went on a multi-state trip of most of a week without carrying along a notebook computer. I carried only my phone (Android), with my wife's 7" tablet available for assistance if needed (turned out none was required).

    I obviously didn't do any "heavy" creative work on the trip - only some relatively minor spreadsheet updates & some email correspondence was all that came up. But along with some fairly extensive reading and research, I was able to handle all of it on the phone. Probably most of that would have been more comfortable on a tablet, but I haven't purchased one for myself yet.

    At this point as I think about getting my own tablet, my concern isn't about whether it will offer compatibility with legacy Windows programs. I'm more concerned about whether it will either run the phone apps I've become dependent on, or offer it's own at least equally useful (and easy to use) versions of those same apps.

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Ashraf Eassa

Ashraf Eassa is a technology specialist with The Motley Fool. He writes mostly about technology stocks, but is especially interested in anything related to chips -- the semiconductor kind, that is. Follow him on Twitter:

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