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The desktop processor market is suddenly hot again

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The desktop/laptop market has been pretty quiet for several years. Windows carved out its dominant space, and despite repeated claims that it would happen, Linux never really emerged as a challenger on the desktop. The Apple Mac proved to be a solid if pricier alternative, popular in certain markets and industries and seeing a surge of interest in recent years with the introduction of powerful M-series Apple processors, which boosted Apple’s market share to 16% by the end of 2023. Chromebooks found their niche as well, primarily in education.

Nevertheless, Windows still claims around 72% of the desktop OS market share worldwide, according to Statista.

For decades, Windows PCs have been powered by processors built on Intel’s x86 architecture, giving rise to the term “Wintel” to describe Windows machines running on x86 chips, either from Intel or its sole x86 rival AMD. According to Mercury Research, which follows the CPU market, Intel has about 80% of the desktop and notebook x86 market, while AMD claims the remaining 20%.

Not that others haven’t tried to break the Wintel stranglehold. For example, Qualcomm, a leading manufacturer of mobile chips, entered the desktop fray back in 2016, partnering with Microsoft to run Windows on Qualcomm Snapdragon chips based on the Arm processor architecture. But those chips required an x86 emulator to run traditional Windows apps, resulting in poor performance.

Performance has improved over time, but so far, at least, Arm-based PCs have not posed a serious threat to Wintel dominance. The biggest challenge Wintel has faced from Arm so far is from the new Macs powered by Apple’s M-series custom silicon.

A new battle emerges

And yet, a battle is about to break out on both the hardware and software sides, driven by the generative AI boom. For starters, Qualcomm is once again fixing its sights on the PC market with a push to begin later this year, according to the company’s president and CEO Cristiano Amon, who discussed the initiative on the most recent earnings call with Wall Street analysts.

Amon disclosed that Windows 11 laptops with Qualcomm’s Arm-based Snapdragon X Elite System-on-a-Chip (SoC) will debut in mid-2024. The processor was launched last year and promises long battery life while providing enough CPU horsepower to run AI workloads at competitive speeds with x86 and Apple custom silicon architectures. “Products with this chipset [are] tied with the next version of Microsoft Windows that has a lot of the Windows AI capabilities,” Amon told analysts.

“Qualcomm is looking to expand into other markets besides mobile, because frankly, mobile is not growing at the same rate that it was years ago,” said Jack Gold, president of J. Gold Associates consultancy. “So they’re looking for peripheral markets to increase their market share.”

For its part, Microsoft seems to be hedging its bets, talking up the Snapdragon X Elite chips but also encouraging other chip makers to get into the Windows on Arm game. Both AMD and Nvidia, the market leader in the graphics processing units (GPUs) that power most AI workloads today, are said to be developing Arm-based CPUs for Windows PCs, according to Reuters.

One way or another, 2024 is shaping up to be a big year for Microsoft. It is expected to ship a significant update to Windows 11, possibly renaming it Windows 12, in the second half of the year. The new OS is expected to greatly expand on its AI processing capabilities. What’s more, Microsoft has ported Windows to native Arm platforms. More details are likely to be revealed at a special media event next month at which CEO Satya Nadella will outline the company’s “AI vision across hardware and software.”

Intel, of course, is fiercely defending its territory. At its Vision 2024 conference earlier this week, the company announced that the second generation of its Core Ultra processors meant to power AI workloads on Windows PCs will arrive later this year.

“Intel’s on a mission to bring AI everywhere,” said CEO Pat Gelsinger at the keynote. “Before competitors shipped their first [AI] chips, we’re launching our second.”

On top of all this comes word that PC maker Lenovo is looking to develop its own AI-oriented operating system, to be bundled with its hardware. Details are sketchy, including whether or not the new OS would be based on Linux. Lenovo declined to comment on the rumors.

Seeds of change?

Disrupting an established market is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. A company wouldn’t make the move to challenge a dominant player unless they smelled blood in the water — but the Wintel (including AMD) partnership is still rock solid and in no danger of splintering, Gold said.

There is, however, an opening for Arm-based systems, particularly from Qualcomm, in machines for users who want maximum battery life, Gold noted. “But it’s still going to be a relatively small portion of the market going forward. I can’t give you a number, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but my guess would be well under 10%,” he added.

Mika Kitagawa, senior analyst with Gartner, notes that Qualcomm has been in the PC market for some time, with little to show for it. “The question is, will this new chip be the game changer in the market?” she said. “They have not been really successful so far, but we think that is going to change going forward.”

Her optimism stems from seeing benchmarks for the Snapdragon processor that showed great performance when compared to the best from Intel and Apple. “It is that great performance that will make Qualcomm get into the PC market in a way they couldn’t do in the past,” she said.

Both Gold and Kitagawa point out that Qualcomm is targeting the consumer market and not the enterprise. Uprooting x86-based PCs from the enterprise will be a significant challenge for Qualcomm, said Gold.

“The number one issue is that any machine [an organization] buys has to be able to run all their software, all their apps, and especially their legacy apps. And in the past, Arm-based PCs had issues with running legacy apps, because they’re not running them natively. They’re running them through translators, basically, so that’s a challenge from a performance perspective,” he said.

Kitagawa’s experience a few years back with x86 emulation “was horrible. I couldn’t really use it. But I think things are really improved,” she said.

Kitagawa declined to speculate on what Lenovo might be thinking with a proposed AI OS strategy, but Gold thinks it might be a part of a strategy for the company’s native China.

“Regular enterprises and users outside of China are unlikely to adopt any one-off, proprietary AI OS. But the Chinese government could mandate it in China for some uses. It’s hard to see Lenovo doing something in the short term that would compete with Microsoft or Linux in the general marketplace,” he said.

CPUs and Processors, Generative AI, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Windows

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