Who Controls PC Hardware?

Although it is clear that Microsoft has always controlled PC software by virtue of its control over the PC operating system, what about the hardware? It is easy to see that IBM controlled the PC hardware standard up through 1987. After all, IBM invented the core PC:

  • Motherboard design
  • The original expansion bus slot architecture (8/16-bit ISA bus)
  • Serial and parallel port implementations
  • Video card design through VGA and XGA standards
  • Floppy and hard disk interface and controller implementations
  • Power supply designs; keyboard interfaces and designs
  • Mouse interface

And even the physical shapes (form factors) of everything from the motherboard to the expansion cards, power supplies, and system chassis. All these pre-1987 IBM PC, XT, and AT system design features are still influencing modern systems today.

But to me the real question is which company has been responsible for creating and inventing newer and more recent PC hardware designs, interfaces, and standards? When we ask people that question, normally we see some hesitation in their responses—some people say Microsoft (but it controls the software, not the hardware), and some say Compaq or Dell, or they name a few other big-name system manufacturers.

Only a few surmise the correct answer—Intel. I can see why many people don't immediately realize this; I mean, how many people actually own an Intel-brand PC? No, not just one that says "Intel inside" on it (which refers only to the system having an Intel processor), but a system that was designed and built by, or even purchased through, Intel.

Believe it or not, I think that many—if not most—people today do have Intel PCs! Certainly this does not mean that consumers have purchased their systems from Intel because Intel does not sell complete PCs to end users. You can't currently order a system from Intel, nor can you purchase an Intel-brand system from somebody else.

What I am talking about is the motherboard. In my opinion, the single most important part in a PC system is the motherboard, and I'd say that whoever made your motherboard would be considered the manufacturer of your system.

Even back when IBM was the major supplier of PCs, it primarily made the motherboard and contracted out the other components of the system (power supply, disk drives, and so on) to others. Many of the top-selling system manufacturers do design and make their own motherboards.

According to Computer Reseller News magazine, the top desktop systems manufacturers for the last several years have consistently been names such as HP, Compaq (now owned by HP), and IBM. These companies, for the most part, do design and manufacture their own motherboards, as well as many other system components.

In some cases, they even design their own chips and chipset components for their own boards. Although sales are high for these individual companies, a larger overall segment of the market is what those in the industry call the white-box systems.

White-box is the term used by the industry to refer to what would otherwise be called generic PCs—that is, PCs assembled from a collection of industry-standard, commercially available components. The white-box designation comes from the fact that most of the chassis used by this type of system are white (or ivory or beige).

The great thing about white-box systems is that they use industry-standard components that are interchangeable. This interchangeability is the key to future upgrades and repairs, because it ensures that a plethora of replacement parts will be available to choose from and will interchange.

For many years, I have recommended avoiding proprietary systems and recommended more industry-standard white-box systems instead.

Companies selling white-box systems do not really manufacture the systems; they assemble them. That is, they purchase commercially available motherboards, cases, power supplies, disk drives, peripherals, and so on, and assemble and market everything together as complete systems.

Dell, Gateway, and Micron (now MPC) are some of the larger white-box system assemblers today, but hundreds more could be listed. In overall total volume, this ends up being the largest segment of the PC marketplace today.

What is interesting about white-box systems is that, with very few exceptions, you and I can purchase the same motherboards and other components any of the white-box manufacturers can (although we would probably pay more than they do because of the volume discounts they receive).

Note that some of these white-box companies have incredible sales—for example, Dell has taken the top PC sales spot from Compaq (now HP), who had held it for many years. Gateway and the other white-box system builders are not far behind.

The point of all this is, of course, that if Dell, Gateway, MPC, and others do not manufacture their own motherboards, who does? You guessed it—Intel. Not only do those specific companies mainly use Intel motherboards, if you check around, you'll find today that many of the systems in the white-box market come with Intel motherboards.

The only place Intel doesn't have a presence is the AMD-based systems using the Athlon or Duron. Although this is an extreme case, one review of 10 systems in Computer Shopper magazine listed 8 out of the 10 systems evaluated as having Intel motherboards. In fact, those 8 used the exact same Intel motherboard.

Therefore, those systems differed only in the cosmetics of the exterior case assemblies and by which peripheral components, such as video card, disk drives, keyboard, and so on, were selected. The funny thing was that many of the peripheral items were identical among the systems as well.

Before you compare preassembled systems from different manufacturers, be sure to get a listing of which parts they are using; you might be surprised to see how similar the systems on the market today can be. Although Intel still dominates motherboard sales, that dominance has faltered somewhat from a few years back.

Because of Intel's focus on Rambus memory during the early Pentium 4 days, many of the lower-cost system builders switched to alternative products. Also, most of Intel's boards are designed to make overclocking either impossible or extremely difficult, so "hotrod" system builders typically choose non-Intel boards.

AMD, on the other hand, manufactures processors and chipsets but not complete motherboards. For that, AMD relies on a number of other motherboard manufacturers to make boards designed to accept AMD processors. These boards use either the AMD chipsets or other chipsets made by third-party companies specifically to support AMD processors.

The same motherboard companies making boards for AMD processor-based systems also make motherboards for Intel processor-based systems, in essence competing directly with Intel's own motherboards.

How did Intel come to dominate the interior of our PCs? Intel has been the dominant PC processor supplier since IBM chose the Intel 8088 CPU in the original IBM PC in 1981. By controlling the processor, Intel naturally controlled the chips necessary to integrate its processors into system designs.

This naturally led Intel into the chipset business. It started its chipset business in 1989 with the 82350 Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) chipset, and by 1993 it had become—along with the debut of the Pentium processor—the largest-volume major motherboard chipset supplier.

Now I imagine Intel sitting there, thinking that it makes the processor and all the other chips necessary to produce a motherboard, so why not just eliminate the middleman and make the entire motherboard, too? The answer to this, and a real turning point in the industry, came about in 1994 when Intel became the largest-volume motherboard manufacturer in the world.

And Intel has remained solidly on top ever since. It doesn't just lead in this category by any small margin; in fact, during 1997, Intel made more motherboards than the next eight largest motherboard manufacturers combined, with sales of more than 30 million boards, worth more than $3.6 billion!

Note that this figure does not include processors or chipsets—only the boards themselves. These boards end up in the various system assembler brand PCs you and I buy, meaning that most of us are now essentially purchasing Intel-manufactured systems, no matter who actually wielded the screwdriver.

Intel controls the PC hardware standard because it controls the PC motherboard. It not only makes the vast majority of motherboards being used in systems today, but it also supplies the vast majority of processors and motherboard chipsets to other motherboard manufacturers.

Intel also has had a hand in setting several recent PC hardware standards, such as the following:

  • PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) local bus interface.
  • PCI Express (originally known as 3GIO), the interface elected by the PCI Special Interest Group (PCI SIG) to replace PCI as a high-performance bus for future PCs.
  • Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) interface for high-performance video cards.
  • ATX motherboard form factor (and variations such as Micro-ATX and Flex-ATX), which, beginning in 1996–1997, replaced the (somewhat long-in-the-tooth) IBM-designed Baby-AT form factor that had been used since the early 1980s.
  • NLX motherboard form factor to replace the proprietary and limited LPX design used by many lower-cost systems, which finally brought motherboard upgradability to those systems.
  • Desktop Management Interface (DMI) for monitoring system hardware functions.
  • Dynamic Power Management Architecture (DPMA) and Advanced Power Management (APM) standards for managing power use in the PC.

Intel dominates not only the PC, but the entire semiconductor industry. According to the sales figures compiled by Cahners In-Stat Group (inSearch Research), Intel has more than three and a half times the sales of the next closest semiconductor company (Toshiba) and more than six times the sales of competitor AMD.

Whoever controls the operating system controls the software for the PC, and whoever controls the processor—and therefore the motherboard—controls the hardware. Because Microsoft and Intel together seem to control software and hardware in the PC today, it is no wonder the modern PC is often called a "Wintel" system.