Google, Intel cement ties on Chrome OS, could weaken Wintel

New Chromebooks highlight a tight partnership between Google and Intel, and a shift away from only Wintel

New Chromebooks announced this week signal Intel's willingness to broaden its horizons and work with companies like Google, at the expense of its long-standing Windows partnership with Microsoft.

Three new Chromebooks from Hewlett-Packard, Acer and newcomer Toshiba with Google's Chrome OS were shown on stage during this week's Intel Developer Forum. The sub-US$299 laptops will run on Intel's Haswell chips, and executives from Google and the chip maker said they worked closely to tune the OS at the kernel and driver levels to work with Intel's chips.

A tighter Chrome alliance with Google is just another example of how Intel, which has been largely left out of the tablet and smartphone markets, is spreading its wings to succeed in the PC, mobile and emerging markets like wearables. In an interview with IDG News Service, Intel president Renee James said the Microsoft-Intel alliance is alive, but the chip maker wants to offer choice beyond Windows.

"Microsoft [Windows] is not the only client operating system anymore. The same way for years and years Microsoft balanced between Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, we're in the same situation now. Our customers want choice, and we offer choice," James said.

Intel's partnership with Google is centered around Android, but the Chrome OS partnership is mutually beneficial. Intel is looking to perk up PC sales following the slow adoption of Windows 8, while Google is trying to expand beyond smartphones and tablets into desktop-style computing with Chrome OS.

"Chrome OS represents a new form of computing," said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president for Android, Chrome and applications at Google, in an appearance during a keynote speech by Doug Fisher, vice president of the software and services group at Intel, on Wednesday.

Intel sees Google as a partner for a range of devices, and the partnership has been getting stronger since they first started working together on Android two years ago, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, during an interview on the show floor.

That doesn't mean the Wintel alliance isn't dead, but it is not close to what it was like four to five years ago, Gold said.

"Microsoft is going off dancing with other partners, Intel has got to do the same thing. Intel is going to go where the volumes are," Gold said, referring to Microsoft's decision to make Windows RT for processors designed by Intel's rival ARM Holdings.

Intel had no choice but to support Chrome OS in the sub-$300 PC market, where Windows 8 does not fit, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"It's like netbook 2.0," McGregor said. "Intel is damned if they do, damned if they don't."

Intel's relationship with Microsoft is deteriorating, which also may have prompted the chip maker to approach Google, McGregor said. Intel tried to develop operating systems like Meego, but failed.

"[Microsoft and Intel] get along in the face of the public, but there's huge animosity," McGregor said.

The analysts agreed that Chrome OS won't sustain fast growth, but Intel had to continue supporting the OS to maintain a presence in the low-end of the PC market. Samsung offers a Chromebook based on a processor from ARM, which is trying to gain share in the low-cost PC market.

Intel will support any OS in markets ranging from PCs to wearables, but only if the customer asks for it, analysts said. For example, Intel has said smartphones based on its Atom chips could support Windows Phone OS, but only if customers requested it.

Intel this week introduced the very low power Quark family of chips for wearable and embedded devices. Intel didn't say which OSes will run on Quark, but Google has a non-Android OS for Google Glass. Intel also could possibly use a real-time operating system from its own Wind River unit. But the chip maker needs to keep its options open, analysts said.

"It's a logical business model for Intel," Gold said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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