Intel and Microsoft: hungry and prepped for war

As I sat in the Grand Hyatt meeting room that Intel had booked in Taipei for Computex, it slowly dawned on me that what I was listening to was the most polite declaration of war I'd ever heard. The target? Almost the entire consumer-tech ecosystem.

As I sat in the Grand Hyatt meeting room that Intel had booked in Taipei for Computex, it slowly dawned on me that what I was listening to was the most polite declaration of war I'd ever heard. The target? Almost the entire consumer-tech ecosystem.

They were quietly shuffling journalists in, region by region, for a chat with Intel's Performance Benchmarking and Analysis team, represented by Francois Piednoel and Matt Dunford. Interesting, I thought — we'll see how Intel benchmarks internally.

The discussion ended up being almost anything but, filled with suggestions, subtle hints and demonstrations meant to give a glimpse at a bigger picture.

Lenovo's K800 was on show — the first Intel Atom-powered commercial smartphone, currently only selling in China. It was slightly ungainly, a little thick, but it seemed snappy enough. It worked fine, but it's not yet a challenger to all the ARM-equipped smartphones, and the interface was far from the most elegant we'd seen.

What it showed, though, is that Intel has been working very hard on getting all devices to talk to one another easily, so your tech experience can follow you anywhere. The phone supports WiDi, which is kind of nifty, allowing you to show your phone's display on your TV (assuming you have one of the very few that support it — or an adapter). They also had a laptop there, showing off how WiDi can treat your TV as a second monitor. There was a video post-processor, which, thanks to Intel's experience in graphics, allowed for low-bitrate videos to be cleaned up and looking sharp. So far, it was nice, but nothing sensational.

What happened next was unexpected.

The phone was held near the laptop's track pad, and it transferred a URL via near-field communication (NFC) — a simple proof of concept, but an utterly painless sharing experience between devices, and something very much under Intel's scrutiny. It was revealed that Intel had been meeting with touch-pad manufacturers to help them rewrite their drivers — not just for NFC support, but also to be more responsive and to provide a better human experience than they do traditionally. Things were being moved out of hardware and into software to make use of the faster CPU. The unspoken inference was that Apple's integrated OS and touch-pad experience is in the crosshairs.

It also reiterated that it is dumping money into touchscreen panels, so that laptop makers don't have to wait for economies of scale, and could sell new touchscreen laptops at affordable prices. This isn't to be at the detriment of other interfaces; Intel's a firm believer in using the interface that's right for different situations.

It's hard not to frame all of this manoeuvring through the lens of the upcoming Windows 8. As it stands, the consumer preview makes no sense to the PC user if you don't have one of the devices with all of these inputs enabled. Both Microsoft and Intel are pushing convertible ultrabooks, as well, so you can have both a super-thin laptop and a tablet in one, servicing multiple needs. It's a compelling vision, too; take your data everywhere, and seamlessly switch to adapt to your needs.

And they're both so very serious about it, too. Make no bones about it; the Wintel alliance has awoken from its slumber — but it's not just the MacBook Air in its sights. It's lining up a killing blow to the Android tablet market as well, by creating a better product with more purpose. The iPad will likely survive just fine, thanks to its smart ecosystem.

Windows RT, for what it's worth, looks like a diversion. Yes, it runs on ARM, but the OEM costs are high enough to potentially make competitive pricing an issue, and a convertible laptop sitting beside it with a full version of Windows, keyboard and touch pad, more power and with greater flexibility will likely have significantly more appeal. It's the equivalent of turning up to a party with someone uglier than you so you look better.

We haven't seen this much drive from either company for years, and it's an ambitious quest. Intel has very much done its bit — now, it's up to Microsoft to see out its part of the deal. From what we've seen of the Windows 8 consumer preview so far, there's a long way to go yet. It's got four months. Let's hope it has something special.

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