Microsoft’s Surface poses tricky questions for Intel

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Keep taking the tablets

The most telling comment in the speculation-fest over Microsoft’s upcoming Surface tablets is a single line at the end of the BBC’s story: “Intel was not available for comment”.

For once, this cannot be put down to the execrable standard of journalism at the BBC; or to inefficiency on the part of Intel’s PR department. Intel always has a comment, even if it’s just an anodyne ‘Intel does not speculate on future products’, or my personal favourite, ‘Intel does not comment on imitator’s products.’

Intel’s silence can be explained by its sole purpose in life – to sell more chips. Were it to appear to wholeheartedly support Microsoft’s foray into box shifting, it would risk alienating every other manufacturer planning on bolting together a Windows 8 tablet, so it has to avoid being seen as favouring the folks from Redmond over everyone else.

On the other hand, the company cannot maintain too low a profile as the entry-level Surface uses – speak it soft – an ARM processor.

But Intel’s unavailability for comment isn’t simply down to it being unsure of what to say in order to avoid upsetting its customers – Microsoft on one hand and world+dog on the other. It’s even more interesting.

Right now, Intel suits are sitting in meeting rooms talking about the unthinkable – Intel itself going into the box-shifting game – something it has studiously avoided since the dawn of time.

The argument goes like this: If we upset all our customers except Microsoft, maybe we should start banging out our own tablets under the Intel brand. What do we have to lose?

This, of course, might result in Microsoft becoming upset with Intel too and pulling the plug on X86 Surfaces. This in turn could mean that in 12 months’ time, the tablet market will be split in two, with Microsoft making entry-level, consumer ARM machines and Intel handling the higher end, business market.

That would mean Apple having to reconsider its stance in this sector. While the World’s Richest Company TM can shrug off the threat posed by iPad-alikes from the usual suspects, were both Intel and Microsoft to enter the market, it would give Apple considerable food for thought.

Perhaps even to the point where Cupertino would have to consider licensing its own mobile OS technology to third party tablet makers to avoid being caught in a deadly pincer movement from Seattle and Santa Clara.

Steve Jobs might be preparing to spin in his grave…