Category: Opinions

Microsoft about to do a Windows 8 on Windows 9

windows9.1 leak Microsoft normally follows a pattern with its operating systems – one successful version is followed by a total stuff up. 

Theoretically that should means that Windows 9 should be great, but leaked screen shots of the coming attraction shows that Microsoft could be headed for yet another disaster.

The update, codenamed Threshold and possibly called Windows 9 or just plain Windows, takes some features from Windows 8 and grafts them onto the classic Windows 7 desktop. This is a sop to most Windows users, like me, who hated having to dumb down their computers by running tablet software as the interface.

When running in windowed mode, Windows Store apps will get a button in the top-left corner. Clicking the button brings up a list of functions that previously appeared in the Charms bar, including Search, Share, Play, Project and Settings. This menu will let users switch the app to full screen mode as well.

There will be some new buttons to the desktop taskbar — a search button sits immediately to the right of the Start button, followed by a button for switching between multiple desktops. The latter feature, possibly called “virtual desktops,” will let users switch between several sets of desktop apps and layouts.

On the right side of the taskbar, users will find a new notifications button, with a pop-up menu that will presumably show messages from Windows Store apps.

The screenshots show that Microsoft is keeping the Charms bar, which many expected would be culled.

While all of this is subject to change as Microsoft has not even released a public beta yet, but it is clear that Windows 9 is not really going to be much different from Windows 8.

This is a major problem, particularly as Windows 7 will be starting to look a little elderly by the time Windows 9 hits the shops. Part of the problem is that Microsoft refuses to understand that people do not want their PCs running like a tablet. When you are sitting at a PC you are there for serious work and serious programs, you do not want to have to jump between screens looking for software you do not want.

How often PC users will want to visit the app store is anyone’s guess, yet Microsoft appears to be trying its hardest to make this easier.

What is annoying is that the software behind the interface is much better and more reliable than Windows 7, but the software is crippled by its interface.

This will create huge problems for Microsoft. When it put out Windows Vista people just stayed using Windows XP. Now, rather than use Windows 8, users are sticking to Windows 7.  If Windows 9 is just Windows 8 in drag then people are going to want to stay with Windows 7 even longer.  That is going to make it even more venerable and established that XP was.

Microsoft needs to get back to design basics and work out why people use a desktop.  Hint: it is not because they want a more powerful tablet.

 

Next year’s server wars may be cancelled

soldiers-2The major battle in the server space planned for next year may be only a minor skirmish with the usual suspects winning.

Intel needs to see off the expected competition from ARM and is going to chuck a lot more cash in the area to keep its position as market leader. What we are seeing from the Intel Developer Forum is that its answer will be a a new Xeon D family of chips.

Xeon D chips will be the first server chips based on the Broadwell architecture, and will go into dense servers starting next year. But these are not your normal server chips, they are effectively systems on a chip which means that they will be deliberately targeting anything “low level and power efficient” that ARM is expected to come up with.

It means that Intel does not think that its Xeon E3 and Atom chips code-named Avoton will be up to the task of taking on ARM. The Xeon D chip will be faster, but more power hungry than Avoton, which is based on an architecture called Silvermont used in mobile chips.

But Intel thinks that the Xeon D will provide more performance-per-watt, which punters will find attractive.

Intel does have some other advantages in any coming server war. Intel’s chips already go into more than 90 percent of servers, and server makers like Dell have said that the chances for success of ARM servers are diminishing due to product delays. Intel also has a head-start on software development over ARM.

ARM’s server chips are based on the ARMv8 architecture, and have integrated networking, storage and I/O controllers. Its key weapon against Intel is still lower power consumption, something Chipzilla is fast catching up on.

A variety of companies had indicated interest in making server processors based on blueprints from ARM,  but so far ARM 64-bit server processors have not been made available commercially.

Chip makers like Applied Micro and Advanced Micro Devices have delayed shipment of ARM-based chips.

Dell is offering prototype ARM servers for benchmarking and application development. Hewlett-Packard announced plans to use ARM processors in its Moonshot “dense” server, which uses x86 chips, but hasn’t announced a definitive release date for the ARM edition.

The other player in any coming war AMD is also expanding its low-power server processor lines,  which could also will hurt adoption of ARM servers.

The other big hurdle for ARM is the fact that most firms already have software and hardware based around x86. To adopt ARM-based servers, companies will not only have to invest in new servers and components, but also port applications to the architecture.

This could make a switch to ARM very expensive in terms of capital and final cost of ownership. Then there are some licensing issues surrounding the adoption of ARM servers, as companies will have to pay more for software per core used in them, Norrod said.

ARM is also finding its allies thin on the ground. ARM server pioneer Calxeda folded operations and earlier this year Nvidia scrapped server chip plans. Samsung has also abandoned ARM server chip development.

Apple eclipses Intel

Intel-IDF-'14-Copy-SizeAs far as we can see, Apple’s announcement of its iWatch put chip giant Intel in the shade yesterday.

Yesterday  was supposed to be Intel’s day, but as it doesn’t really have very much to say about anything except wearable technology, it didn’t really stand a chance.

We’ve noticed that Apple has received accolades from what our own Nick Farrell calls the Tame Apple Press. He defines TAP as uncritical media outlets – magazines to you and me – both journalistic people and publishers that swallow marketing pap and regurgitate it as if Apple, or Intel for that matter,  was capable of telling any kind of truth.

Let me tell you, from past experience, Apple chooses very carefully the journalists it invites to its launches. As, for a matter of fact, does Intel.

It was, I think in 1990, that Apple announced something or other in London and dragged along the late Douglas Adams to give a witty presentation that wowed us all. However, I noticed that after the event had finished, Adams was talking to the Apple spinner about his reward – quite a lot of Apple DRAM.

Intel tries to play a similar game but is really cackhanded about it. It’s not really very good at marketing. Back in the old days it decided to set its legal department in my direction, and in other directions too. Then, under the captainship of Andy Grove, Intel was a bully and we all know that bullies need standing up to.

The corporate spin departments of these computing multinationals believe they can manipulate, bully, or even exclude journalists from the scene.  Just in the last 25 years I’ve been personally told by the likes of Microsoft, HP and Intel that “I’d never work in this industry again”.

Intel has turned into Mr Nasty yet again,in the 21st century,  but the truth is that it has had little or nothing to say for at least the last six years.  Apple doesn’t seem to have much to say either unless you’re one of the famous fanbois that really must have something strapped to your wrist.

The truth is that commodisation of the IT industry has weaved its wicked way – Apple won’t even release its famous iWatch until next year. Intel getting into wearables is risible. And Microsoft is struggling to even give the impression that it has a stratagem.

The second decade of the 21st century just goes to show that these monsters of the late 20th century are just straw dogs, and the way ahead is way different from they think. Here’s what an Intel spinner had to say about yours truly, in relation to Mark Hachman:

“From: Francisco, Daniel J Sent: 24 March 1999 23:35 Subject: RE: more from Mike Magee on Compaq Merced Since we’re giving our two cents:) It’s really a juggling act. We’ve had some luck (ie, Mark Hachman, EBN, and PC World editors) with tough love approach, telling them they’ll get more access to us if they are more objective and less sensational/negative in their articles. The trick is actually not giving them the “special” access after we go down that path. In the case of Magee, his reporting doesn’t indicate that he values the exec access and the efforts to build a stronger relationship. Hachman was the same way when we started working with him. There is no value for the special access until it stops and is given to someone else. Then they realize the benefits of “working with us.” Hachman’s writing has come full circle. And following this last IDF and his ridiculous coverage, I’d be hard-pressed to lobby for Magee to come to future IDFs, especially on Intel’s dollar. Dan”

Dancing Dan Francisco – he’s a nice chap but still a corporate spinner after his INTC corporation experiences. Idiots.

Apple is in the Last Chance saloon

last-chance Today Apple will get a chance to spin its way out of trouble with one of its product presentations.

While its allies in the journalism world have been doing their best to sacrifice their credibility by peddling rumours about what Apple is going to show off, it is almost certainly going to be the long delayed Smartwatch and another iPhone.

But Apple has not had a new product for four years and many believe it needs to come up with something new or lose its reputation as an innovator to some of its rivals.

And this is where it has a problem. It only has a smartwatch and a phablet, both of which have been done to death by rivals.

No doubt presenting these shiny toys will get Apple CEO Tim Cook a standing ovation, but getting one of those at an Apple rally is like getting one at a Tory Party conference.

Apple will also get fanboys queuing for their new iPhone and some, no doubt will want one of these watches.

But the question many should be asking is “is any of this new, or innovative and will it keep Apple relevant?”

The creation of the mobile phone actually killed off the wristwatch and many people would require training to put one back on. So far smartwatches have found their place amongst those who want to measure their heart rates while doing exercise. This is not a big target market, and there is some competition out there for Apple.

Apple got away with its launches into the smartphone and the tablet market because what it presented was largely new.  Smartphones had been around, but they were ugly, clunkly and very expensive. Apple pushed its tablets to consumers, something that Microsoft had ruled out and had some success.

But the field has changed. Apple is competing on all fronts with rivals who have cheaper and in some cases better products.

The Phablet is a case in point. Apple fanboys mocked phablet owns for holding large phones to their ears, and yet the phone’s usability in comparison to smaller phones became clear fast.

Apple had to eat humble pie and admit that it had it wrong when it came to phablet size, in the same way that it had to admit that it was wrong about people wanting smaller tablets.

In all these things Apple has been playing catch-up and is not doing that well.

Analysts appear optimistic that Apple will pull another rabbit out of a hat. Michael Yoshikami, CEO of Destination Wealth Management told Reuters that Apple’s pipeline is finally going to satisfy those who have wondered if the company has any new products.

But even if Cook wows them with products at today’s rally, it is a long way before products will hit the market. Word on the street is that the Smartwatch is still not ready and unlikely to go on sale until sometime in 2015. Apple may not even reveal its price on today.

Apple was planning to show off its iCloud based products, such as Mobile Wallet. Apple has reportedly struck deals with Visa, MasterCard and American Express. It has also come up with its “HealthKit” data service earlier this year made it clear that it sees its products helping consumers manage personal health information. By incorporating the HealthKit service into the iPhone 6, and by packing its smartwatch with sensors capable of monitoring physical movements and heart rates, Apple could lay the groundwork for a broader push into mobile healthcare.

The problem for Apple is the recent iCloud security scandal which saw countless starlets have their naked pictures put online. Apple made matters worse by pretending it was not a security fault with the iCloud, when it clearly was.

The last thing you need a couple of weeks before you release a clutch of iCloud products is for people to question if it is safe sticking their data on Apple’s systems.

All up, we think that Apple will have a hard time convincing sane people that it has a special plan to pull itself away from mediocrity. The Tame Apple Press will try to convince you otherwise, but we suspect that cooler heads will be wondering how Apple could have sunk so low.

Intel has lost the plot

Intel-logoOur sister publication, TechEye, reports this morning that Intel is selling its chips at or below cost in an attempt to wrest more market share in the tablet market.

The truth is that like its joined at the hip twin, Microsoft, Intel has lost the place.

We’re not able to quantify the amount of money Intel has spent in the last years attempting to get its microprocessors into smartphones and tablets – all to very little effect.

The truth is that the last thing smartphone manufacturers want to do is find themselves in the same position as PC makers did – that is to say in the grip of a virtual monopoly.

When Intel first mooted the idea of the Atom microprocessor, senior executives maintained in the face of overwhelming evidence that its introduction would cannibalise its existing notebook market.

We have some sympathy for Intel – it invests considerable amounts in very expensive factories employing tens of thousands of people.  But its clear lack of strategy in the face of the onward match of tablets and smartphones that don’t use its microprocessors is puzzling.

Microsoft is at the crossroads

A knight at the crossroads, Victor VasnetsovIn many cultures, both in Asia and the West, crossroads are considered to be baleful places, associated with darkness, with death.

Why so?  A crossroads is a place where you have to make decisions, to head off in a different direction, not really knowing what lies at the end of the route you choose.

Microsoft is at the crossroads.

The appointment of Satya Nadella as Microsoft’s CEO, replacing the somewhat understated Steve Ballmer, is a considerable challenge for the software behemoth.

And Bill Gates is back – spending a third of his hours – to help with Microsoft’s product strategy.

There are a few problems with the Gates move.  Despite Microsoft’s undoubted success in the past, much of it was a product of accident coupled with very cunning marketing.  It was, for example, IBM’s decision to adopt DOS as the operating system for the first PC which pulled Microsoft from obscurity into the limelight.  Although Microsoft released its first version of Windows it was many years before Windows took off. Microsoft was never very good at inventing anything.

The stimulus for businesses to adopt the IBM PC was a clever piece of software from Lotus, 1-2-3.  Even that spreadsheet was not a first because that honour belongs to Visicalc, for Apples. But Apples were and are expensive and in the 1980s large businesses adopted PCs because they would never be fired for buying IBM.  The fact that PCs had Intel microprocessors inside meant that businesses were tying themself into a cartel which included. at that time, Microsoft and AMD too.

When companies and individuals first started adopting Windows, Microsoft had the field to itself for the introduction of application software was offered as a bundle.  Its software was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. judged inferior to offerings from the like of Lotus, Ashton-Tate and Borland – just as examples.

But now Microsoft, like its joined at the hip partner Intel, is lagging behind in the technology stakes, with both joining the smartphone and tablet revolution way too late.  And we’ve seen a steady decline in sales of the PC for many quarters now. The gravy train has hit the buffers, or perhaps the cash cow is dead.

What’s interesting in the management reshuffle yesterday is that Symantec and former IBM senior executive John Thompson is now chairman of the Microsoft board, essentially meaning that Microsoft’s three main movers and shakers is a troika.  Thompson should not be underestimated.  He is a highly intelligent, astute businessman who has been trained in the school of hard knocks.

The big question is whether in the next 10 years will we see all those giants of the PC age – HP, Dell, Intel, Microsoft and the others – relegated to the second division or maybe even the fourth.

That’s why Microsoft is at a crossroads. And there’s no compass nor GPS nor Google Maps to show it the right route to take..

Microsoft shows clear signs of OS desperation

windowscomputexMost people were reasonably happy with Windows 7. For that matter, most people quite liked Windows XP. No one liked Vista.  And it’s pretty clear that Windows 8 has gone down with the most enormous thud.

Even Microsoft seems to acknowledge that – our sister publication TechEye is reporting that it is saying Windows 7 isn’t that secure.

Actually, it’s Microsoft that isn’t that secure. And its insecurity is linked to Intel’s insecurity too.  Microsoft, like Intel, was way too late to jump on the tablet bandwagon and its efforts to get into the smartphone market have been somewhat of a big fail too.

The truth is that it’s all about money and has very little to do with security. These endless patches from Microsoft for operating systems have always been a nuisance and demonstrate that on the OS front, at least, the software giant hasn’t really invented anything.  It’s all been borrowed or acquired.

You can’t get a new PC from a retailer now without it being installed with Windows 8.1. Want Windows 7? You’ll have to buy it separately. And if you believe Microsoft, it’s not that secure anyway.

At the launch of Windows XP in London all those years back, Steve Ballmer told us that it was the most secure version of Windows ever. Some of us remember what happened with that one.

I have a machine here that’s running Windows XP and there’s no way I’m “upgrading” it to Windows 8.1.  That will leave me insecure, according to Microsoft.  Insecure I will be, then. But I do get the definite feeling that I’m not alone in sticking with an OS I like and without the tablet feel I expect on a tablet, not on a PC.

Intel seems to have lost its way

Sean MaloneyThe news that Intel’s Galileo is on its way just underlines to me how the chip giant has lost its way.

The “open source” computer costs $70, and uses its Quark microprocessor. Intel clearly thinks it will compete against the highly successful Raspberry Pi but clearly it hasn’t got a chance to play catch up.

The launch mirrors Intel’s late attempt to climb on the tablet bandwagon by cutting the price of its Atom microprocessor to compete with ARM and Nvidia based chips.  But it hasn’t got an earthly here, either.  Manufacturers are very chary about using anything with the Intel name associated with the tin. Again, that’s underlined by vendors’ reluctance to be associated with Intel.

Cheap is everything in the tablet market now and even though Intel’s chips might be, er, cheap as chips, the economics of this don’t really make a lot of sense to anyone. Sure, Intel has heaps of capacity but that in itself is part of the problem. State of the art fabs are really expensive these days and the volume game just doesn’t fit Intel’s business model.

In reality, the chip giant really has very little new to say. The new broom in the shape of CEO  Brian Kzanic appears to be attempting the Herculean task of cleaning the Augean Stables not just of the dung but also of a heap of very good people who have let their legs do the walking.

Datacentre business no doubt is still healthy for Chipzilla, but on the other hand independent market research shows that the notebook market is on the wane.  Sure, enterprises will refresh their notebooks but with the arrival of BYOD, there’s a level of ambiguity which must leave Intel more than a little bemused.

In truth, Intel has had zilch to say in the last three years as smartphones and tablets transformed the “traditional” Wintel model.

As part of the antitrust agreement following the demise of DEC, Intel found itself with StrongARM devices. At the time, we asked top executives from the firm why it didn’t just cut the Gordian Knot and produce a highly portable ARM based device?  The answer, of course, was that Intel was on the Centrino notebook gravy train. Sean Maloney, now a non-executive director at Chinese foundry SMIC, realised that the Atom chip might well cannibalise the notebook market but nobody at Intel appeared to have looked further than the next three quarters and see its dominance becoming more and more eroded.

Of course, Intel has oodles of cash in the bank but oodles don’t last forever.  Re-engineering its business model is, for Intel, a far from trivial task. As an Intel watcher for the last 30 years, I will be most interested to see what happens in the next 12 to 18 months.

Smart watches are a surreal notion

Salvador DaliThere’s not that many youngsters I know who wear wrist watches these days, apart from as a fashion accessory, maybe sometimes.

After all, the majority of kids have a smart phone on them, which is really a supercomputer that tells you everything you need to know, including the time.

So a report from Digitimes Research has me wondering whether the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

The report suggests the entry of the Apple iWatch will boost the smartphone market, which, in the developed countries at least, has reached saturation.

Average selling prices of smartphones are falling but Digitimes Research seems to believe that if Apple releases its iWatch in the second half of next year, the brand power alone will boost the ASPs.

The research reckons that smart watch shipments will amount to 5.92 million units next year, 22.79 million in 2015 and 75.66 million in 2016, but that’s only if Apple gets its watch out.

Older people tend to wear watches and our eyesight isn’t as keen as youngsters’ – so the development of larger display smartphones has been something of a boon.

You can read more, if you can see the screen on your smart watch, here.

Hawaii illustrates AMD’s newfound love of GPUs

AMD, SunnyvaleThe PC market has been in trouble for quite a while, but even before the most recent slump, there were a few telltale signs that many big players were getting ready for a slowdown. Lavish launch parties aren’t very high on the agenda and the 2008 crash only sped up the austere trend.

AMD is now taking a different route. After years of low-profile product launches, the company is holding a big bash in Hawaii, where it will launch its latest Hawaii GPU on Wednesday.

This is clearly a statement of intent – AMD wants to raise the bar in the GPU space yet again. Nvidia on the other hand is talking up Tegra, but it’s not doing nearly as much on the GPU front. AMD has a few highly successful promotions in the form of Never Settle bundles, while Nvidia talks Tegra, Tegra and more Tegra. Did we mention Tegra?

So what’s behind AMD’s recent change of heart? Well, it might be a knock-on effect of Rory Read’s hands-on approach to management, but we believe it represents a strategic shift in AMD’s thinking. Nvidia still has a firm grasp on the professional market, with its high-margin Quadro series. It is also beating AMD in notebook design wins – but notebook sales aren’t going very well and with each new generation of Intel Core chips and AMD APUs, integrated graphics are getting better, hence the low-end discrete GPU market is evaporating.

Tegra was Nvidia’s way to tap new markets and make up for lost ground in the GPU space. It was by no means a failure, but it hasn’t been a huge success either. Nvidia no longer wants to deal with console GPUs, hence it ceded that market to AMD.

To some extent, AMD and Nvidia are no longer vying for the same market. There’s never been so little overlap when it comes to the AMD – Nvidia duopoly. AMD does consoles, Nvidia does discrete mobile GPUs, AMD does APUs, Nvidia does Tegra and so on.

Nvidia will continue to do well in the workstation space, as workstations are still selling quite well and they’ve been largely unaffected by the PC slump. Sales of gaming hardware are projected to grow at a steady CAGR of about three percent for the foreseeable future, which means both AMD and Nvidia should have no trouble selling mainstream and high-end discrete graphics. However, the console wins and the lack of presence in other markets mean that AMD is left to pursue the core gamer market more actively.

This explains the Hawaii bash along with the huge bundles. As Nvidia tries to diversify, AMD will try to attack its core business and right now it is lot more aggressive than it was a year or two ago. Whether AMD’s back-to-basics strategy will work remains to be seen.

Intel becomes irrelevant

The mighty dinosaur IntelIt was formerly a chip giant but pretty soon now some archaeologist will uncover the bones of Chipzilla as the lumbering dinosaur nears the end of its existence.

At the Intel Developer Forum this year, Intel’s newly hatched CEO, Brian Krzanich, attempted to breathe new life into the diplodocus he tends by warbling on about healthcare and tablets. He must realise, of course, that to somewhat mix metaphors, Chipzilla has missed the boat.

The writing was on the wall for Intel some years ago but because the company is such a giant, the tiny brain wasn’t getting messages from its extremities that it was slowly dying.

It is a climate change in the egosystem that will spell the end for Intel because, in the marketing babble of the present age, its business model is clearly “unsustainable”.

Intel could only continue to churn out new processes and chips as long as it had a virtual monopoly in the market.  A new fab costs billions to produce and profit is predicated on the fact that it essentially controlled the market.

The giant appears to have missed the fact that handset manufacturers didn’t and don’t want to be locked into the same model as the PC industry.  Now, anyone with a smartphone or tablet is toting around an extremely sophisticated computer and no-one in their right minds wants to spend thousands on a PC unless they’re forced to.  As recent market research has shown, the days of PCs are pretty much numbered and, of course, like its evil twin Microsoft, Intel forgot about the mantra it used to chant, that mantra called convergence.

It will take a while for Intel to die because it is such a lumbering creature, but a model that requires billions to develop new processes simply based on PC sales just won’t work anymore. And if Intel thinks that tablets or smartphones will save its bacon, then it is living in cloud cuckoo land.

In some ways, we must lament the coming death of Chipzilla.  It had some fine people working for it and its process technology was next to none.  But greed and its virtual monopoly meant that it was viewing the world wearing blinkers and its own momentum and size prevented it from taking vital decisions.

Intel runs out of roadmaps

stapThere was a time, some years ago, when Intel mattered. It doesn’t matter any more at all and it is running out of steam.

Soon, Intel will hold its annual Intel Developer Forum (IDF) – it was a must attend event back in the days when the company had many very talented senior executives. Most of them are goners now.  Intel was famous for inventing things and driving the industry by using its considerable clout to create stuff.

Now it creates nothing, nothing at all.  Like many a large corporation, including Microsoft and many another corp too, it started behaving like an ingrowing toenail, believing – against all the evidence – that it would hold its mighty market share forever.

We did warn Intel repeatedly it shouldn’t rest on its laurels.  When it adopted StrongARM, as a result of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) maneuvers, we advised it that it should drastically change its business model and produce some stunning and cheap devices based on that technology.

But no. Like an ignorant bull, it insisted that the world+dog should have notebooks that cost a small fortune.

The last two years has seen its strategy crumble into dust. No one cares about its roadmaps any more. No one gives a flying fart about its process technology. No one has a clue.  It lost some of its most talented individuals – Kicking Pat Gelsinger, Mike Fister full of dollars, Mike Splinter and the rest, and blithely pursued a path which will lead it to Carey Street, if it’s not careful.

As we reported a week or two back, the freshly minted CEO is attempting to introduce a top down page and firing all the spin doctors who, these days, couldn’t spin their way out of a paper bag, nor organise a piss up in a brewery or cheese factory.

Like many an old dinosaur, its tiny brain doesn’t realise that it has been dying from the tail up for several years. It is a shame – we have the utmost respect for any company that has factories – this is no trivial matter. But engineering its way out of this current crisis is, we feel, a fab too far to go.

PC slump may actually benefit AMD in long run

AMD, SunnyvaleIt is often said that a crisis is merely an opportunity in disguise. It is often said but it’s rarely true. However, the steep drop in PC shipments could in fact be good news for AMD.

Ten years ago AMD taught Intel a costly lesson in the high end, forcing Intel to regain its footing and invest heavily in R&D and manufacturing. As a result Intel squeezed AMD out of the high-end consumer CPU market, relegating it to the mid range and low end.

AMD wasted its opportunity, but eventually it picked up ATI a couple of years after its CPU design peaked. Things looked bright for a moment, just before they went terribly wrong. AMD suffered from poor execution and its high end chips just weren’t good enough to keep up with Intel. The K8 glory days are long gone and AMD is now a different company, it is fabless, but it also has plenty of IP, competitive graphics and very interesting APU and x86 SoC designs.

So how could the weak PC market benefit AMD, especially now that mobile chips are the new black, and AMD hasn’t got any?

Long upgrade cycles are one indicator that the era of “good enough” computing is already here. The average PC is more than four years old, few people need costly high end processors and attention is shifting to low end and mid range silicon. This is what AMD is becoming good at. Its new Jaguar based APUs are brilliant and they are superior to Intel’s current generation of Atoms. Richland based APUs aren’t as competitive, but they offer relatively good value for money and they are making inroads in the ULV market as well. The bad news is that AMD is still suffering from execution problems. Kaveri was supposed to replace Richland later this year, but it has been pushed back to early 2014, along with desktop Jaguar-based Kabini parts. AMD’s propensity for delays makes any forecast extremely difficult.

With very little need for Intel’s high-end x86 chips in the consumer market, gamers and professionals aren’t enough. This is an obvious opportunity for AMD and CEO Rory Read seems to get it. That might explain why AMD is focusing its efforts elsewhere. APUs are just part of the story, they were the logical next step in CPU evolution. AMD’s next big thing is custom chip design. The Xbox One and PS4 are based on Jaguar, with AMD graphics in tow. Now for some geeky figures.

Most people associate Jaguar with cheap and small APUs, but custom console SoCs are neither. Built using TSMC’s 28nm process, the SoC used in the Xbox One actually features eight Jaguar CPU cores, coupled with powerful graphics and plenty of SRAM embedded on the die. They pack around 5 billion transistors, while Intel’s mid-range Haswells are said to feature between 1.4 billion and 1.2 billion, depending on the SKU.

AMD hasn’t forgotten how to do huge, immensely complex chips – it’s just not doing big x86 cores anymore. Its high-end GPUs also have upwards of 4 billion transistors. What’s more, AMD can apply the same custom approach to server parts and it’s also working on ARM based server chips as well. This flexible, modular approach sounds very interesting indeed, but it’s still too early to say whether AMD will put it to good use in server chips, so to speak,  whether it will manage to find enough customers for custom parts, as the orders have to be relatively big to justify the expense of developing and producing such chips.

As far as AMD’s graphics business goes, it is doing rather well at the moment. Time and again AMD has proven that it can go toe to toe with Nvidia and win a few rounds. We’ve been looking at a virtual stalemate for the past five years. This year AMD managed to increase its GPU market share, despite the fact that Nvidia won nearly all Haswell notebook design wins. The trouble for Nvidia is that notebook graphics are a dying market. In the consumer space AMD is doing well, while Nvidia still maintains a big lead in high-margin professional graphics. The recent console wins should also help AMD’s consumer GPU business, as developers should find it easier to optimise their games for AMD’s architecture on three different platforms.

The big question is mobile. A couple of months ago Nvidia announced that it would license its Kepler GPU and future GPU IP to third-party ARM SoC builders. AMD has not made the same commitment, but some AMD graphics tech is already used in mobile chips, in the form of Qualcomm’s Adreno graphics. The ARM SoC business will continue to grow and we are bound to see more consolidation. Nvidia has a small presence in the ARM SoC market and if it is willing to license its technology to its own competitors, AMD could and should enter the market as well. It is worth noting that Adreno is running out of steam, as it is based on old AMD/ATI tech. We’re not sure it would make financial sense for Qualcomm to continue development in-house, it might reach out to AMD instead. There is very little overlap between Qualcomm and AMD at the moment, and such a marriage of convenience would make perfect sense. If that happens, AMD could end up with a huge market share in ARM SoC graphics, trumping Nvidia, ARM and Imagination.

AMD is still in a world of trouble, but looking ahead it might actually be in a better position to weather the storm than Intel, at least in the consumer space. High end chips and server parts are still Intel’s turf, although AMD could score some custom server wins in the future. Intel is pushing mobile now and it has a good chance of penetrating the market a couple of years from now, but in reality if AMD starts licensing GPU IP to the likes of Qualcomm, it could make heaps of cash in mobile, with a lot less investment and risk than Intel.

The seven cardinal sins of Steve Ballmer

steve_ballmerNow that Steve Ballmer is on his way out, partners are breathing a collective sigh of relief for a number of reasons, some petty some huge. Over the last 13 years Microsoft has had a fair share of ups and downs. Although Ballmer can and should be blamed for many of them, it is worth taking a step back for a bit of perspective.

He took the helm in the good old days, when work was already underway on XP, one of Redmond’s most successful operating systems, backed by an impressive array of other products and initiatives, such as the Xbox push.

It’s been downhill ever since.

Ballmer described Vista as his biggest regret and who are we to argue. Vista was terrible, but in an ironic twist it did help fuel the need for new, faster hardware. It was just too bloated to run properly on old XP boxes, so people had to upgrade. To fix the mess Windows 7 was a lot more streamlined and it was followed up by the even leaner Windows 8. As a result, most Vista machines are still perfectly capable of running the latest version of Windows and the biggest reason to upgrade a laptop is an unfortunately placed cup of tea coupled with long sleeves.

However, the biggest problem with Windows was and still remains relatively slow development and the reliance on an ancient business model that no longer works. Apple and Google try to keep things interesting with tons of updates and new features, free of charge. Microsoft’s updates are basically fixes and new versions of Windows still cost an arm and a leg, offering very little in return. Windows 8 is proof that Microsoft still doesn’t get it. It was supposed to work on tablets, but there aren’t any, it was supposed to deliver x86 hybrids which are still nowhere to be found and it was supposed to do all that with very little in the way of touch enabled apps. As an added bonus, corporate users hate the new interface, which has failed on both fronts. Windows 8 is not good for tablets, but the tablet tweaks also made it unappealing for desktop users and businesses.

There was no shortage of hardware flops during Ballmer’s tenure, either. Remember the Zune, or better yet the Kin? Neither do we and Microsoft is trying to forget them. In addition to wasting millions on Zune, Microsoft also wasted half a billion on the developer of Sidekick and Kin, which was appropriately named Danger. Microsoft’s hardware curse is still going strong, thanks to the Surface RT.

Investing in Danger wasn’t the only bad call. Six years ago Microsoft also took a $6.2 billion write down for digital marketing outfit aQuantive. Wasteful spending continued with Microsoft’s efforts to take on Google in online services and search. All the efforts failed spectacularly, but cumulatively they cost the company a few more billion. Earlier this year Microsoft took another $900 million hit thanks to the Surface RT.

While Ballmer’s Microsoft was trying to compete with Google online, it was outmanoeuvred by Google on its own turf. Google acquired Android eight years ago for just $50 million, one tenth of what Microsoft paid for Danger. Google is now the biggest mobile OS on the planet, the Kin is just another embarrassing footnote in Microsoft’s history. Google also scooped up YouTube, DoubleClick, AdMob and topped it all off with Motorola Mobility. Google was just a lot better at picking winners than Ballmer and his gang. Microsoft did get Skype, but it paid $8.5 billion for the privilege and it did it only after Skype virtually destroyed its own Messenger.

The Skype deal is indicative of another problem. Mighty Microsoft paid $8.5 billion to buy a competitor, as it apparently couldn’t bring its own services up to speed for what is a huge amount of cash. Google probably could and would, Apple too, but for some reason Microsoft’s culture revolves around throwing cash at problems rather than solving them in-house. It is just a weird and oppressive culture that could work in the nineties, when Microsoft was king of the world and didn’t have much competition to worry about.

But Microsoft’s biggest failure under Ballmer was undoubtedly mobile. Ballmer arrogantly laughed at the iPhone and he clearly failed to recognize the threat posed by iOS and Android. As a result Microsoft’s market share in the smartphone market is virtually non-existent. It also teamed up with Nokia, another outfit that didn’t get it, which was only fitting. If phones weren’t to be, then Microsoft had another big chance in tablets, but it botched that, too. It even decided to cripple its own Windows RT by refusing to integrate Outlook, while at the same time it refused to release Office for iOS and Android, which didn’t help its own products and just allowed competing products to emerge.

The big question now is who will take the helm? We’re not sure anyone was groomed for the job and to be honest we’re not sure many people would want it. We suggest a maid from a Las Vegas hotel. They are used to cleaning up a mess and cleaning up Ballmer’s mess will probably be akin to cleaning Hunter S. Thompson’s hotel room.

Intel’s post PC strategy is faltering

Intel-logoEver since Intel got a shiny new CEO, we’ve been hearing talk of an aggressive mobile push, of a more dynamic Intel that will eventually steer clear of trouble and trample the ARM gang with Brian Krzanich at the helm.

This of course will take time, if it is possible to begin with, so Intel’s first order of the day was to talk about mobile rather than do anything about it, and talk it did.

Intel spent much of the last quarter talking about 2-in-1 hybrids, touch enabled Ultrabooks and now it’s outlining its smartphone strategy, complete with LTE. So far it’s been all talk and almost no action.

Earlier this week Intel shed more light on its first LTE chipset, the XMM 7160, which is supposed to launch by the end of the month. It is a multimode chip and currently Intel offers only a single-mode LTE solution, which is obsolete.

Worse, even the XMM 7160 is a discrete solution, it’s not an integrated option like Qualcomm’s LTE. Intel wants the world to think that it’s serious about LTE, but in reality discrete LTE chips are a thing of the past. It’s all about integration now. Intel’s next generation XMM 7260 LTE chipset is set to appear next year, with LTE Advanced support. Intel’s first integrated LTE solution might appear in the first half of 2014. This is very slow indeed and as a result Intel is highly unlikely to score any big phone design wins next year. It can go after second-tier devices, but they’ll probably be scooped up by MediaTek, Qualcomm and other ARM players.

To be blunt, Intel simply won’t do much better on the smartphone front next year. It will gain market share, but we are still talking about low, single digits.

It won’t do much better in other segments, either. It appears to be pinning its hopes on hybrids, which seems very risky at this point. Hybrids, or 2-in-1s, are supposed to combine the portability and practicality of tablets with the productive prowess of proper notebooks. The trouble is that they’re just not there yet. Windows RT is on life support, Windows 8.1 will still be big and bloated. As a result Windows 8.x hybrids will cost a lot more to produce than Android and iOS tablets, margins will be tight and vendors won’t be very happy. The OS itself is another problem. An x86 tablet with legacy support for tons of Windows applications sounds very good, if you’re Dr Who and you can travel back in time to 2009. The market has moved on and legacy support just isn’t what it used to be a few years ago – and it’s losing relevance fast.

The failure of Intel’s Ultrabook push and touch-enabled notebooks is another concern. Ultrabooks were too pricey and they didn’t offer much in the way of new features. Simply slapping a touchscreen on top of them did not address the original shortcomings of the concept, so touchbooks are failing as we speak.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Intel ditched Atom based netbooks in favour of pricier designs. At about the same time it culled CULV to make way for Ultrabooks. Intel wanted more high-margin silicon in the market, but now it’s focusing on Atom once again. The first Atom based hybrids are starting to show up and they are practically what the netbook would have evolved into had Intel not killed it. In the meantime, cheap tablets and Chromebooks ate its lunch, along with cheap ultraportables based on AMD’s low-end APUs.

As for tablets, Intel dropped the ball years ago and now it’s facing a much tougher market, a market it desperately wants to get back into. Intel recently launched a couple of unimpressive education tablets, running Android. Samsung also tapped Intel for the Galaxy Tab 3, which is equally disappointing spec-wise. Intel now says it wants to do more on the Android front, but it is simply too late. Intel’s x86 support is irrelevant in the Android world and most Android tablets are powered by dirt cheap ARM SoCs. High-end Android tablets, which seem like the obvious choice for Intel chips, aren’t selling well – so even if Intel gets back into the game, it doesn’t stand to make much on Android tablets.

It’s only ticket into the Android universe are high-volume devices, like flagship phones. It will not get them anytime soon. Next year’s Android flagships will still be based on ARM chips and unless Intel pulls off a miracle, it won’t get any in 2015, either. Samsung makes its own Exynos chips and doesn’t really need Intel’s Silvermont. Motorola has also cooked up a custom chip based on Qualcomm’s Krait core, which means Google is also pursuing a custom in-house approach. Apple already designs custom ARM cores and this won’t change. And then there’s Qualcomm. And MediaTek, and Nvidia, and LG, and just about everyone else with an ARM licence under their belt.