The PC's past and Intel's future

The leading purveyor of PC chips doesn't really think a lot about the desktop anymore.

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Is the desktop PC on the road to oblivion? Well, let's put it this way: it's hardly an Intel priority anymore.

Yeah, desktops will still be around in 2016, but it's not something Intel -- which makes most PC processors -- thinks about a lot.

Survival in the age of the big-screen smartphone and tablet is what Intel thinks about.

A recent 75-page study from Goldman Sachs titled "Clash of the Titans" puts it, rather delicately, this way: "We believe the ongoing share shift in consumer computing toward smartphones and tablets and away from traditional PCs will be negative for Intel."

Of course, Intel has no intention of fulfilling analysts' dire prophecies. So, it has a newfound laserlike focus on mobile for its "client," aka PC, business.

And Intel's mobile future can pretty much be reduced to two code names: "Broadwell" and "Bay Trail."

Let's look at Broadwell first.

"With Broadwell there won't be a desktop update. Broadwell is focused on mobile," said a source whose company sells PCs in the U.S. and who gets briefed by Intel on future processor road maps.

That source calls Broadwell -- due in 2014 -- a "half tick," referring to Intel's Tick-Tock model for microarchitectural changes.

The half that's been left out is, basically, the desktop. Of course, a PC vendor could go out and buy a Broadwell circuit board and stick it in a desktop, but Broadwell hasn't been conceived with that in mind.

That's news. Intel has always come out with desktop-specific chips -- some, for example, with a "K" suffix -- but that apparently won't be the case for Broadwell, according to the source.

So, is this the death knell for the desktop chip and, as a consequence, the desktop PC? The latter will survive (in the form of the "Skylake" microarchitecture) but not before being buried under six feet of mobile silicon.

Which brings us to Bay Trail. Intel's most power-efficient chip, likely due in 2013, should get closer to putting laptop-class performance into, let's say, a really thin, light tablet with plenty of battery life to spare.

More specifically, it's a redesign of the Atom processor, which was designed from day one to be slow... er... power efficient. "For Atom, every decision was made to sacrifice performance for power [efficiency]. And they went a bit overboard with that," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64.

Bay Trail and its variants aim to fix that.

And Mark Bohr, an Intel Senior Fellow, made it clear last week in a conference call that getting Intel's latest-and-greatest 3D chip technology into the next system-on-a-chip, or SoC (which is how Intel often refers to Atom now), is pretty important. Important enough to be Intel's biggest statement at the International Electron Devices Meeting this week.

I would even go so far as to say that Intel is staking its future on Bay Trail and it variants. And it's not just mobile clients either. Small, power-efficient servers are also part of the picture.

Facebook said this week that it wasn't interested in Intel's current Atom chip for its in-house microservers. But it will take a serious look at the next generation of Atom -- for the reasons stated above.

So, what's the fate of the traditional desktop? It will be around in 2016, but it will be pushed to the back burner -- if not teetering on the back edge of the stove -- with the rise of mobile silicon.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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