Happy New Year! As I let the coffee sink in and recover from last night’s “nerdly New Year”, which is what my wife called the attempt to get photos from a recent trip to play from a share on our Windows Home Server to our TV, I thought I’d make my first blog post of the new year. A good ding of the Windows eco-system sounds like a perfect start to the year!
I’ve been asked about, and in some cases taken to task for dinging OEMs over, the impact of Intel’s shipment delay on the Clover Trail Atom processor on the Windows 8 launch. Clover Trail is supposed to be Intel’s first real shot at showing it can make the x86 compete with the ARM vendors in the low-power market. Many OEMs have designed new systems around Clover Trail, so when I write that the OEMs have failed to get Tablets and Convertibles into the market the push back is “blame Intel, not the OEMs”. Well, I’m not letting OEMs off that easy. Intel is indeed a villan in this story, but the OEMs still deserve most of the blame.
When it comes to Tablets, dockable or not, I agree that Intel’s failure to deliver Clover Trail on time is a primary contributor to the lack of devices on the market. Intel promised, and appears to be delivering, an awesome chip. But they missed the boat on availability leaving the Windows Tablet market almost exclusively to the ARM-based Microsoft Surface and ASUS VivoTab RT. And I know that many, including Paul Thurrot, think that Microsoft should have used a Clover Trail rather than an ARM processor in the Surface so that it could run traditional desktop apps. Of course, that would have meant the Surface missed the Thanksgiving selling season. Now that would have been a disaster. Oh, and I have a surprise prediction in my next blog entry that will definitely not make Paul happy.
Intel’s Clover Trail delay validated Microsoft’s decision to support ARM as an alternate processor architecture. At the size and scope of both Intel and Microsoft neither can bet their survival on the success or failure of the other. Wintel was always been a bit of a myth. Both companies, even at their closest points, have always sought ways to retain their independence. Microsoft has run Windows on MIPS, Alpha, and even IBM’s Power processors. Windows CE has run on MIPS, PowerPC, and ARM for many years. That mainstream Windows on these other architectures failed to catch on (or even ship in Power’s case) is a testament to many market factors, including Intel’s ability to stay ahead on both process and design technologies.
The biggest threat to Intel was actually AMD, whose decision to focus on a 64-bit variant of the x86 derailed Intel’s plan to make the IA-64 (Itanium) a replacement for the x86. Intel was forced to adopt the now standard x86-64 architecture. Intel has for its part always sought to make sure other operating systems supported its chips. Their biggest coup was getting Apple to adopt the x86-64 for the Mac. And they’ve been a large investor in the Linux community. That the Microsoft/Intel partnership continues to be the most important and successful for both companies is not to be dismissed. But they will, and must, continue to diversify away from one another.
I think that the Clover Trail delay is being over-played as the reason for the lack of compelling Windows 8 devices on the market this fall. Tablets were betting on Clover Trail but Convertibles had far less of a dependency. The Dell XPS 12 uses Intel Core processors that have been available since mid-2012, but I didn’t see one in the flesh until December 26th. So does the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist, which also didn’t make it into retail until sometime in December. So does the elusive ASUS Tai Chi. The Core-based Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 did make it into retail displays very early on, but actual availability has been very limited. That leaves the Core-based Sony Vaio Duo 11 as the only convertible with any significant retail presence leading up to Christmas, but its odd keyboard design left many cold. It is actually disappearing from retail outlets.
Even pure tablets that skipped Clover Trail couldn’t be found at retail during Windows 8’s first 6-8 weeks of life. The Acer W700 is one such example. The Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T is another device that wasn’t impacted by Clover Trail delays. These devices are pricey and unlikely to achieve much volume with consumers, but that is a separate issue from them being AWOL during the Windows 8 launch.
So despite the Clover Trail delay the retail channel could have been stuffed with Convertibles and Tablets at, or within days of, the launch of Windows 8.
OEMs also have a responsibility for managing their supply chain. Basically, with the schedule around Clover Trail pushing so close to Windows 8 launch they should have had backup plans. Either a reliance on the earlier generation of Atom processors or on low-powered Core processors. These would have entailed somewhat different strategies than we have today, for example focusing on lower price points or more business-oriented tablets.
Imagine if Acer had rolled out a more modestly updated W500′ at the $249-299 price point rather than the Clover Trail-based W510 at $499? Sure a W500′ wouldn’t have been as power or performance competitive with ARM as Clover Trail allows. On the other hand the price would have allowed Acer to garner huge attention and, along with the Surface, been the true talk of the Windows 8 launch. Could you build a tablet at the lower price point? Almost certainly given you didn’t push other specs too much. For example, this device might have stuck with the W500’s 1024×768 screen. Definitely an entry-level offering.
Are their other supply chain issues, besides Clover Trail, impacting the Windows 8 launch? Yes. A few players, Apple being the key one, have locked up most of the manufacturing capacity for touch screens. It is entirely possible that Lenovo, Dell, HP, and even mighty Samsung have found themselves unable to obtain sufficient supply of touch screens to get even their non-Clover Trail designs into the retail channel. I also think this is one of the factors behind Microsoft’s slow expansion of Surface distribution channels. Microsoft may have managed the Surface launch based on the volume of touch screens they could obtain.
Which brings me to a final point. For me the most frustrating part of the entire launch has been being bombarded by promotion (advertisements, press releases, launch events, reviews) of devices which were not available. I can’t count the number of images of the Dell XPS 12 I’ve seen since Windows 8 launch, yet couldn’t actually touch one until December 26th. I would rather have seen one or two compelling devices in retail, with all the promotion focused on them, for the first few weeks than being bombarded with vaporware messaging. Microsoft, Intel, and the OEMs set an expectation about Windows 8 devices that hasn’t yet been met. The blame is across the board, but I continue to believe that OEMs own the lion’s share of responsibility. They could have done better. Much better.