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The Week in Review: Some shock realignments, but Wintel never goes away

As Google unveils a third OS and Intel embraces ARM, there is one constant in the devices universe – the co-dependence of Intel and Microsoft

This week has seen some shake-ups to the established order of the mobile device orld – Intel bowing to the inevitable and adopting ARM physical IP; Google going off-piste with its non-Android Fuchsia operating system project.

ARM itself has produced the biggest shock tie-up of the year with its agreement to be acquired by Japanese operator Softbank, and now the lines between its ecosystem and that of arch-rival Intel are blurring. Intel has already tinkered with ARM over the years, creating an ARM-based mobile platform, XScale, which it subsequently sold to Marvell in 2006, and acquiring some ARM-based chip designers such as Picochip and part of LSI.

Now it will license ARM’s physical IP in order to manufacture chips based on the UK firm’s designs – an essential move as CEO Brian Krzanich looks to expand the foundry business.

Google kept competitors and partners on their toes with news of a third OS, Fuchsia, oddly designed for “modern phones and modern personal computers”, which may worry supporters of Android and Chrome OS. Google may be recognizing – in far better time than Microsoft did with Windows – that the established mobile operating systems have run their course and need to be reworked or replaced to support emerging new devices and user experiences, and so to keep the cycle of new service and hardware revenues ticking round. Fuchsia is in its early stages, but is likely to be targeted at very low end devices and eventually embedded products – the initial code is running on a hybrid tablet, but the next step is reported to be a port to the Raspberry Pi.

Surprise realignments are not confined to devices this week. Usually competitive operators are increasingly joining together to reduce the cost and risk of creating some kind of 5G platform which will actually meet their needs – AT&T is taking the spirit of harmony to a whole new level, building collaboration around seven operators and seven vendors. Seven is the magic number for 5G it seems – the US operator is also joining Intel’s ‘Super 7’ group of web and cloud giants, and hopes all these partnerships will allow 5G to come to market earlier.

AT&T may be forgetting the dismal track record of operator alliances of the past, which have often floundered in politics and technical disputes, while more nimble challengers seized the baton – remember the Wholesale Applications Community, which was meant to create a software ecosystem for 24 large MNOs, but was roundly outstripped by Apple and Google? And even now, the disastrous efforts to achieve consensus around LTE-Unlicensed show how collaboration may be possible in the big picture days, but becomes very hard when it comes to practical details.

The same may happen in 5G, especially where operators are looking at the tried-and-trusted fixed wireless use case for their first commercial activities. As Google puts together its jigsaw of fiber, WiFi, balloons and fixed wireless (especially after its US Webpass acquisition), the entrance of new operators – or rather, a platform which circumvents traditional spectrum-owning operators – seems ever-more likely, and they could take a big chunk out of ‘5G’ revenues in some markets.

New partnerships, then, will continue to be formed as the industry works out what 5G may be and what it may enable. Some will be a shock to the system, but other alliances just refuse to break. The Wintel double act defined the PC era but failed to repeat the trick in mobile devices, driving Microsoft and Intel towards new allies. Their lack of success in smartphones may have convinced them that they work better together after all – Intel’s developer conference this week saw the launch of its Project Alloy virtual reality headset effort, which is the cheerleader for a broad collaboration with Microsoft on a ‘mixed reality environment’. This could be the first step towards defining a new Wintel ecosystem for wearables and other emerging connected devices, as a last attempt to stay relevant in devices. Back to the future indeed.

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