Intel and the Wind River acquisition

5 June 2009

Silicon and software marriages, particularly in embedded systems, have never been very happy affairs. Freescale Semiconductor bought several software tools companies in its time and has vacillated between having its own software operation and letting third parties do the job. The problem is that silicon companies are almost uniformly terrible at extracting money from customers for software. They tend to treat software as a loss leader in the hope they can lock systems houses into long-term buys for silicon.

There are two ways to look at the Intel's decision to buy Wind River. The optimistic scenario is that Intel management looked at Wind River and realised the software company was moving into areas that are key to the chipmaker's development. Wind River has an active role in the Multicore Association, which is developing software standards for multicore processors. Intel needs to understand as much as it can about multicore development. However, the chipmaker already has its own team working on this stuff and from what it's published so far, seems to be in advance of Wind River's own work. The difference is that Wind River has more commercial experience of multiprocessing through work with telecoms customers. The multicore API committee that Wind River engineers is on has its roots in telecom.

Then you have the handset software business. Wind River trumpeted its close involvement with the Limo Foundation over the past couple of years. Maybe not the best choice if you have an eye on high volume given that Limo has done a bang-up job of convincing applications developers they should not touch it with a bargepole. But Wind River had, more recently, been working on Android.

Although ARM favours Ubuntu for netbook-class systems, Android looks as though it could become the main choice for a Linux based OS running on netbooks that can overcome the unnecessary balkanisation in Linux platforms that the computer companies have indulged in so far, and unwitttingly strengthened Microsoft's position in netbook software. As a result, the only real competition to Windows on netbooks has been Microsoft's own stupidity. But the Seattle giant still has time to reverse the dumbass decisions to limit applications and screen size before Windows 7 hits. Android could make Microsoft think again, as long as the computer makers don't do anything stupid, such as implement special profiles.

Wind River has set itself up as a service house to help the computer makers put Android on to their hardware. It's not a bad plan although many of the netbook makers seem to have managed to customise their own Linuxes so far. Why should Android be any tougher?

However, Intel might use that porting experience to try to get a version of Android that works better on its own hardware. The question is how hard Intel will try to get a version of Android working on Atom. This deal suggests it's quite hard. However, this assumes that the main reason for the deal is not the defensive ploy.

As Intel finds itself coming up against ARM-based hardware throughout the embedded market, the company will have realised one thing: ARM does a lot of its own tools. One unusual aspect of this is that ARM is pretty good at getting money for its tools. However, this has a lot to do with ARM being an IP and not a silicon supplier. ARM does not suffer from the conflict that the silicon suppliers have when trying to offer software or services alongside the hardware.

One of ARM's smart ideas was to invest in debug tools that work in multicore systems. Debug is something that Wind River has also been working on for many years, although it's an area of the business that hasn't received all that much attention in recent years and has been falling as a share of revenues. But it arguably has more in the way of multicore debug than Intel does right now.

The canned quote from Ken Klein, Wind River president and CEO, suggests the deal was aimed at rebuilding an Intel tools infrastructure for the embedded space - something it sold off back in the 1990s to Radisys: "As a wholly owned subsidiary, Wind River will more tightly align its software expertise to Intel's platforms."

Although the same release claims Wind River will "continue with its current business model", you have to wonder how much love the people using ARM will get over the coming years. Ditto those customers in the more specialised parts of Wind River's business such as military and avionics.

These are sectors that Intel quit years ago because they were too slow-moving and expensive to support. Wind River has just embarked on a project to catch up with Green Hills Software in providing a certified secure kernel for military systems. There is, potentially, a reason for keeping this area going as the technology may cross over into high-volume commercial systems - that is a bet that Green Hills has made - but you have to wonder how much resource Intel will devote to that versus getting an infrastructure geared up for Atom as well as the x86 silicon used in telecom systems.