Intel, long a market dominator in CPUs, is in a huge fight with the shape-shifter that is the ARM processor. Not long ago, Microsoft did deals with Intel that shaped the marketplace, and there was little stopping the alliance. As an example, a decade ago, Microsoft was willing to port Windows onto a variety of different processor family architectures, including MIPS, HP/Compaq/DEC's Alpha, as well as others. Look how THAT turned out. Microsoft will now support ARM architectures in Windows 8, and a couple of ARMs race CPU makers are already certified.
The crush to squeeze power efficiency from consumer devices seems to have caught Intel by surprise, despite their Atom CPU engineering. Intel has lacked strong smartphone chipset technology, and the burgeoning smartphone and tablet markets have distracted those that would have bought desktop and notebook machines. It's not inconceivable that Apple could just buy Intel. I wonder if that thought would make Microsoft squirm.
For a decade Microsoft and Intel (Wintel) ruled, and the competition, especially Apple with their PowerPC chip that evolved from Microsoft/Intel competitors Motorola, IBM, and Apple, those poor sandal-footed punks, drooled. Apple didn't enjoy having sand kicked in its face at the beach, however, and started to change. Daily trips to the gym, coupled to creative reinvention, helped them grab markets. Their sub-PC form factor products started to soar, and in their wake, desktop and notebooks started to sell. But their PPC-CPU fueled machines needed a kick start. In a quest to increase performance and cut power, Apple made a deal with Intel and suddenly, many things changed.
Apple's been growing their notebooks and desktops (sorry, the Xserve is now officially toast) for 20 straight quarters. I believe that they have Intel's attention in a fairly major way, whereas their relationship with other makers isn't quite matching Apple's leading market cap. Other PC makers have been killing themselves in costly redesign after redesign, while Apple takes the BMW and Jaguar approach: develop a solid new model, then refine, refine, refine for a few years. Instead of a bold semi-annual new look (replete with new widget mixes), Apple iteratively advances a basically solid design.
Intel, by contrast, has taken its chip-making organization into designs that make denser and more powerful designs, often at the cost of enormous power consumption. Apple has been doing its job of putting the chill on using Intel's other CPUs, perhaps deferring in the future to the ARM family of customizable processors, which Intel might build.
ARM family CPUs are 16- and 32-bit processors (and soon 64-bit) whose architecture allows them to operate at very low power drains. Battery life, where operating systems and apps are optimized for ARMs, can be long. Charge cycles over the operating life of the unit where the ARM CPUs are used are reduced, people are happy. They don't really care what's underneath the hood, so long as they can do their work and entertainment on the device. Maybe 1 in 100 smartphone consumers can tell you what kind of CPU is in their phone, but probably more than half can tell you what's in their desktop or notebook. The CPU marketing identity war is a non-starter in mobile devices.
But it's Apple that now tells Intel what to do, as in cut the power crap. The initial Core-Duo chipset has been fabulously powerful, and only iteratively more scrupulous about power consumption. Operating systems are getting greener by loading fewer tasks that need to run all of the time, and video/GPU makers have become zealous regarding the power needed to make hungry display electronics more efficient, too.
And today, Apple's ex-CPU partner, Motorola (its mobile division) becomes a part of its greatest current competitor, Google. The silicon shifts.