Tech talk: Wintel's cornucopia of choices

Corporate IT people who think that all Wintel systems are the same are living in the past.

Corporate IT people who think that all Wintel systems are the same are living in the past.

Once upon a time, Wintel (Windows on Intel) meant something - usually Windows 95 running on a Pentium. Indeed, in the UK's slower corporates, this may still be the standard desktop. But out here in the real world, Wintel represents a cornucopia of choices.

Just look at Windows. XP is the main version, but that now comes in four variants for client platforms: XP Home, XP Professional, Tablet Edition and Media Center Edition. Throwing in Windows Embedded (as used in the XBox games console) and Windows .net Server 2003 (out in beta) makes it half a dozen. Windows 2000 Professional, 2000 Server, 2000 Advanced Server and 2000 Datacenter Server are all still going concerns, too.

Then there is the installed base, which includes an assortment of Windows 95, 98, 98SE and Me. No doubt even Windows 3.11 and NT 4.0 are still hanging on at Rip Van Winkle Ltd's offices in Sleepy Hollow.

Throw in Windows CE with its Pocket PC 2002 and Phone editions and you just about have the set.

For a long time, Intel stuck to the boring progression of 286, 386 and 486 processors with only minor variations, such as clock speed. After the 586 (aka Pentium), however, it speciated. Now there are Pentiums for the rich and Celerons for the poor, M monikers for mobile computers, Xeons for workstations and servers, and Itaniums for something or other - no one is quite sure what.

Meanwhile, AMD has chipped in with Athlons and Durons, with more to come.

In fact, you cannot even rely on getting the sacred x86 instruction set in Intel chips. The company also sells XScale processors, which came out of Acorn's ARM (Archimedes Risc Machine) via Digital Equipment's StrongARM.

This is not a criticism. It is great for Intel to sit down and design a notebook PC processor from scratch - as it has with its forthcoming Banias version - rather than adapting a desktop processor. Ditto for servers. Similarly, "Windows everywhere" does not mean the handheld and the mainframe have to run identical versions of the operating system.

Variety also provides an element of competition, and at least Microsoft and Intel are doing it in compatible ways. This contrasts with the internal competition that afflicted the IBM monopoly, where the S/360, S/36, S/38, S/88 and RS6000 ranges did not even have simple things in common - keyboards, monitors, character sets, or even ASCII.

But all this variety seems to tax the brains of the people who need to keep up with what is going on, and the pockets of the ones who don't. These people tell me there is no choice in the Wintel market. "They are all the same," they say. This is simply not the case.
Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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