Microsoft’s Silicon Influence

Easily, one of the most interesting parts of Microsoft’s Fall devices launch event was the news that Microsoft had been working closely with Qualcomm and AMD on co-developing, or using somewhat customized Silicon, for their newest Surface products. Microsoft is certainly not going down the road Apple has been on developing their own custom silicon, but rather took a path to collaborate with AMD and Qualcomm to do some unique things for their hardware. There are several important takeaways that are positive for large screen computers going forward, as well as the broader ecosystem for Microsoft and their partners.

A Positive Influence on Silicon
Long-time readers know I’m fond of saying that understanding the trends and roadmaps for Silicon is the easiest way to predict the future. This is one reason I stay so close to the semiconductor industry. It shows us what is possible from a computing standpoint and helps us shape the perspectives of the new things humans can do once they get more capabilities in their hands.

In my analysis of the Surface event last week, I articulated how, for decades, Intel had been the influencing force for the PC ecosystem. I talked about how Intel created many reference designs of new form factors of computers in order to try and move PC OEMs forward with new ideas and categories. One positive byproduct of this was Intel’s ability to troubleshoot problems in advance as they learned by shipping new classes of devices. One of the most relevant was the early work done on 2-in-1 devices where PCs first saw a touch screen come to the form factor. There was critical work to be done on both the processor as well as the software that Intel and Microsoft had to do in order for this to work. The early reference designs help them work out the kinks, and ultimately touch-based Windows machines just ran better on Intel silicon because it had already been optimized. Intel used these references designs to influence but also stay ahead of the market and use that learning to impact future roadmaps.

Happily, the world of computing is now much more heterogeneous than it used to be. We can now see true silicon diversity across a range of categories, and this is good for everyone. As much as Intel would love the world to not just run on X86 but to run on Intel Architecture, this is not a great future. It is in this context I’m intrigued by what Microsoft is doing with AMD and Qualcomm.

For the broader computing ecosystem, Microsoft is a better influence overall than Intel, which makes Microsoft now co-investing in silicon efforts with AMD and Qualcomm all the more important for the future. When I look at the opportunity here, it stands to benefit AMD and Qualcomm a tremendous amount as Microsoft will be helping both these companies with their overall roadmaps as well through these efforts.

The influence Microsoft can exert, which will help Qualcomm and AMD better orient themselves for future computing products from laptops, to gaming rigs, to low-cost PCs, to foldable computers, etc., is one of the most significant elements of Microsoft starting to have influence and input on the Silicon landscape.

The other part of these moves I find interesting is the opportunity for Microsoft to further tune their software and services to the silicon roadmaps of Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm. A tighter relationship and guidance on silicon roadmaps means Windows, Azure services, and a range of other offerings from Microsoft stand to get better and more tightly integrated as well as a whole. Not just for Surface products but for the whole of the PC ecosystem and all forms of computing devices that come from Microsoft partners.

Interestingly, this extends beyond Windows as Microsoft is now working closely with Google as well to bring the best of Microsoft and the best of Google to an Android product. The Surface Duo is based on the Qualcomm 855, and while Microsoft had no direct influence on the 855, it will be interesting to see how their collaborations with Qualcomm extend beyond just a few products but perhaps impact the broader Android ecosystem positively. I see these moves as positives for Microsoft and the broader software ecosystem and will benefit many involved for years to come.

While we are not sure the exact amount of customization that Microsoft has done with Qualcomm and AMD, the broader point is whatever has been done today is just the beginning.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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