September 18, 2012, 8:29 AM — It's getting so you need a scorecard to keep up with the relationships between Linux and ARM chips these days.
Here's what we know: after initial news that it would not be supporting Linux on its Clover Trail series of processors, Intel has since backtracked a little bit, as an Intel spokeswoman told Computerworld, "Intel has plans for another version of this platform directed at Linux/Android; however we are not commenting on the platform specifics or market segments that at this time. Stay tuned."
Okey dokey, Intel.
Of course, if you believe open source luminary Bruce Perens, staying tuned to Clover Trail may not be the best use of your time. Over the weekend, as the Linux community was stewing in a fair amount of indignation that any processor maker would not provide Linux support, Perens made his own case that Linux was better off without Clover Trail, anyway.
"Clover Trail's target is a future Windows 8 Tablet. Given the lack of Linux support and the remote probability that Apple would be interested, that's the only platform available to the CPU. If you expect the Windows tablet to do as well as the Windows 8 smartphones recently released by Nokia and others, you probably aren't far from wrong. Clover Trail, built with partner Microsoft, might be Intel's biggest loser since Itanium, built with partner HP," Perens wrote.
He has a point, but boy, does that point smack of none-too-sweet grapes.
Putting aside how Peren's arguments sound for a moment, it is more than a little puzzling why Intel would bet their latest entry in ARM-space on Windows 8. Perens speculates that Microsoft may be playing one of its nefarious underhanded tricks.
"Sometimes, Microsoft can force Intel to do things. Microsoft Windows runs on most of Intel's processors, and thus Intel must accommodate Microsoft. It's also said that Microsoft holds a blocking patent on the Pentium architecture," Perens speculated. "In this case, Microsoft needs a 'Hail Mary' pass - something that will make Windows 8 desirable on pocket and tablet platforms against IOS and Android, while the desktop market Microsoft built their company upon diminishes."
Actually, it may not be as dark as that. Currently, even as it has been very successful on smartphones, Linux-based Android hasn't really been a big hit on the tablet side of the business. The Nexus 7 is doing decently right now, with projected sales of eight million by the end of the year, but Android-on-tablet performance has still pales in sales performance compared to that of the Apple iPad juggernaut.
There may not be Microsoft strong arming within Intel's calculus; the processor maker could simply be looking at these sales and thinking that right now the best chance for a breakout hit could be tablets based around the Microsoft Surface reference model (which is what I will be calling it, by the way, until I hear a release date).
This undoubtedly seems bizarre for Linux and open source aficionados, but Intel is very likely looking at what happened with Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad and is working to avoid that implosion. Because more than anything, Intel wants to get some market-share love in the ARM space… even if it means alienating an operating system that has gotten a lot of server-based chips shipped out the door.
It's not that Android/Linux sucks on tablets. But the saddest lesson the iPad inflected on the marketplace is apparently the "go big or go home" example. This mentality is why HP pulled its TouchPad off the shelves so quickly when sales did not skyrocket. And it's why Intel wants to partner with a vendor that will hopefully have a similar breakout hit. Android has not proven to have breakout capacity yet. Windows on ARM is currently an unknown variable in their equation, and that's why Intel is banking on it first.
They're not alone. AMD, which would love nothing more than sticking it to Intel, is also initially betting on Windows 8 for its new Hondo mobile chip.
As Steve Belt, corporate VP of ultra low power products at AMD said in an interview with The Inquirer, "This is a Windows 8 product, only. We're not doing Android on this platform, at least not now. [...] It is a conscious decision not to go after Android. We think the Windows 8 space has a lot of opportunity, there's plenty of TAM [total addressable market] there for us to go at. So we don't need to spread ourselves into other markets, we think Windows 8 is a great place to start. Down the road we may look at Android, right now we're focused on Windows 8."
Right now, it seems like Intel and AMD are hedging their bets a little bit: work on Windows 8 on mobile platforms first, but keep Android as a go-to when--er, I mean if--Window 8 fails.
For Google, in the short term, this is likely nothing more than a pain-in-the-ass for Android. But it is still a portent of the potential trouble for their Master (Non)Evil Plan. As Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon work to replace Google services on their respective devices, Google will find its ad revenue getting a little smaller, as less eyeballs find their way to those all-important embedded ads. While there are still plenty of other chipmakers in the sea for Android devices, more competition is just going to whittle away at that ad base.
It's a storm that Android is sure to survive, but rough seas are definitely ahead.
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