Microsoft and Intel have dominated the past three decades of the personal computing revolution. And, while both companies are doing just fine financially as more and more people across the globe get their hands on computers, the Wintel alliance (Microsoft Windows on Intel x86 chips) is about to move from the driver's seat to the back seat in the technology world.
Mobile computing is about to zoom past the PC ecosystem, and despite efforts by both Intel and Microsoft to adapt to the mobile world, neither of the two is poised for the same kind of success in mobile that they've experienced in PCs.
While you could argue that this change has already been happening for a couple years, 2011 will likely be the turning point. Here are four reasons why:
- People are spending a larger chunk of their computing time on their smartphones as these devices take on greater capabilities with more computing power and more applications
- Multitouch tablets are about to explode in 2011 by bringing computing to new demographics (children, elderly, and people afraid of computers) and new usage scenarios (field workers, conference room professionals, and more) with their simplicity and portability
- Smartphones will start to replace some PCs in 2011 with products like the Motorola Atrix 4G that are powered by dual core processors and can dock and function like full PCs (look for this trend to gain a lot more steam in 2012)
- In the developing world, mobile devices are the primary PCs and Web devices because they are much easier to get into the hands of average citizens and much easier to connect to the Internet (it's a lot more cost effective to put up cell towers than to lay a bunch of copper or fiber lines)
So, if Microsoft Windows and Intel chips are moving to the back seat, which companies are moving up front? It would be easy to argue for Apple. After all, the company has shifted its entire strategy to focus on mobility, from laptops to tablets to smartphones to portable media devices, and in 2010 it passed Microsoft to become the world's largest tech company. However, Apple's strict focus on vertical integration generates lots of profits and great products, but limits its role as a partner in the larger tech ecosystem and ultimately limits its market share potential as well. Apple is an island — a very lush, idyllic island, but an island nonetheless.
The leaders of the next era in computing will very likely be Google Android and NVIDIA.
Android isn't without its challenges — lack of OS standardization is fragmenting the experience for users and the software itself suffers from the same kind of gradual "bit rot" that plagues Windows. Nevertheless, Android is proving itself to be as adaptable for mobile devices as Windows (and DOS before it) was for PCs and that's why all of the major mobile OEMs are rallying behind it.
I've doubted Google's commitment to building great software, but the work that Google has done with the UI for Android 3.0 Honeycomb along with the desktop UI that Motorola built on top of Android on the Atrix 4G (for when the device is docked in laptop or desktop mode) have inspired new optimism that not only will Android develop into a great mobile OS for phones, but also has tremendous potential for tablets and light laptops as well.
On the hardware side, it's interesting that NVIDIA is the company edging forward into the pole position. Previously known for its high-end graphics chips for PCs, NVIDIA made a big bet on mobile processors in recent years and looks poised to reap huge benefits from it by leapfrogging past mobile chipmakers like Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.
NVIDIA took its knowledge designing GPUs for PCs and channeled it into building mobile CPUs with excellent overall speed, strong graphics, and a low power footprint. Its NVIDIA Tegra processor first showed off impressive performance in the Microsoft Zune HD. And, it's dual core Tegra 2 was everywhere at CES 2011 as tech companies unveiled their big products for the year. The dual core Tegra 2 was featured in nearly all of the hottest smartphones and tablets announced at CES.
Also at CES, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said, "We need a device that brings the portability and mobility of the smartphone, but the power and performance of the PC."
At the company's CES press conference, it was easy to tell that NVIDIA sees itself as a company that has the tiger by the tail. Huang radiated confidence and tossed out hyperboles like "This is the beginning of a new era" and "There's a mobile computing revolution underway" and "The magnitude of this change is still being internalized by us all" and "I think we're going to look back on this particular CES as when things changed."
Here are a couple of the slides that NVIDIA trotted out to CES 2011 to show why the company is so excited:
NVIDIA also has its Tegra 3 processor on the way later this year, and at CES the company announced "Project Denver" (a codename), which is a high performance ARM core that NVIDIA and ARM are designing together in order to power laptops, desktop, servers, and supercomputers. This is a company that is hitting on all cylinders
Keep in mind that the mobile ecosystem is going to have a lot more diversity than the PC ecosystem ever did. We won't see a platform dominate with 80%-90% market share the way Microsoft Windows and Intel chips did in the PC market.
In mobile, there will be plenty of room for Apple to snatch up lots of market share with its vertical integration, BlackBerry will remain an important niche platform for high-security businesses, and Nokia, Microsoft, and others will continue to fight on and try to grab a sliver of the market. On the hardware side, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments won't go down without a fight and the two of them will remain important players in the mobile ecosystem.
Still, the top dogs in mobile are going to be Android and NVIDIA, and the way things are going in the computing world, these two will no longer be limited to just hand-held devices but will soon start honing in on some native Wintel territory as well.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.