For more than two decades, Microsoft's software and Intel's processors were so wedded that the pairing came to be known as Wintel. But as that computing era wanes, Microsoft is turning to a new source of chip design: its own labs.
The design effort will initially be split between research labs at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and its Silicon Valley campus here. Tentatively named the Computer Architecture Group, the project underscores sweeping changes in the industry.
One reason for the effort is that Microsoft needs to begin thinking about the next-generation design of its Xbox game console, said Charles Thacker, a veteran engineer and Microsoft engineer who will head the Silicon Valley group. Voice recognition may also be an area where the research could play a significant role.
"Voice is big," Thacker said. "You can throw as much technology at it as you want to."
Microsoft is exploring hardware design now in part because of a new set of tools that will make it possible to test ideas quickly, he said. The researchers will employ a system designed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that makes it possible to reconfigure computer designs without the cost of making finished chips.
"We are at an inflection point in the industry," he said. "Our friends say computers are not going to get faster, we're just going to get more of them."
As shrinking transistor sizes make it possible for designers to put multiple processors on a single chip, and computing functions are increasingly hidden in consumer devices, Microsoft faces new challenges and opportunities.
In recent years, the computing model centered on the desktop PC has increasingly given way to new, more specialized markets like video games and cellphones. As Microsoft has moved to enter these markets, it has increasingly designed hardware, software and packaging that are made by independent contractors but marketed under the Microsoft or Windows brand.
At the same time, new coalitions have emerged, like Apple's decision to use Intel microprocessors, or Microsoft's switch two years ago from Intel chips to PowerPC microprocessors designed and manufactured by IBM in its Xbox system.
The explosion of chips with an increasing number of "cores," or multiple processors, is bringing parallel computing -- the ability to divide tasks for faster processing -- into the consumer electronics market. That could give companies like Microsoft a competitive advantage by controlling both hardware and software and the way they interact.
"This is a historic time in the computer industry," said David Patterson, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "We're in the middle of a revolutionary change toward parallel computing that will absolutely involve both hardware and software."