Why Qualcomm is likely to power Microsoft’s next Surface RT

Even though we have no sales data on Microsoft’s(s msft) Surface RT tablet, it doesn’t yet look like a hit. The $499-and-up device can now be had with a free Touch or Type Cover keyboard, which could signal a dump of inventory. That could be part of the scenario, but it’s also very likely that Microsoft is readying a new model. After all, some of the technology in Surface RT was available at least a year ago. In particular, the Nvidia(s nvda) Tegra 3 chip that powers the slate debuted in November 2011.

Surface RT standNvidia’s new Tegra 4 chip is now available and this next generation has a whopping 72 graphics cores, not to mention that it reportedly offers better performance than rival Qualcomm’s latest silicon, the Snapdragon 800. Nvidia didn’t announce any Tegra 4 design wins at January’s Consumer Electronics Show, but at this week’s Computex event in Taiwan, Asus bet big on the new chip with its Transformer Infinity Pad, a high resolution Android(s goog) tablet with keyboard dock. Toshiba, too, is using Tegra 4 chips in two new Excite tablets.

So Nvidia, which Microsoft chose for the current Windows RT device is the likely winner for a refreshed model, no? Perhaps not.

Qualcomm shows off Windows 8.1

Qualcomm announced its support for Microsoft Windows 8.1 on Tuesday, which by itself is no big surprise. Here’s an interested bit from the press release, however:

“At Computex Taipei 2013, Qualcomm Technologies is building on this innovation and collaboration with Microsoft by showing Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processors running on an early version of Windows RT 8.1.”

Again, this isn’t a huge surprise either but I haven’t seen any news of Nvidia showing off Windows RT 8.1. It could well be doing so — I’m not at the show — but there’s no press release to indicate any effort. For Nvidia, Computex seems to be an Android event.

Sometimes words can be louder than actions

Here’s another interesting angle: Which company has publicly supported Microsoft’s Windows RT effort?

Both of course, but Nvidia has commented negatively about Windows RT sales. In March, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang told developers that “Windows RT is disappointing to us because we expected to have sold more than we did.” While the sales disappointment is pretty obvious, some things are better left unsaid; especially when you’re a key Microsoft partner and supplying chips to the flagship device for the Windows RT platform.

The WinTel lesson

There’s also the long history of WinTel to consider: Windows software and Intel(s intc) silicon. For years, this duopoly controlled the computer market and both companies involved benefited greatly. But as computing shifted to mobile, both Microsoft and Intel(s intc) were hurt as well: Different operating systems on lower-powered chips have kept these two behemoths largely out of the mobile market.

Intel Atom Z2760Intel is just now showing signs of competitiveness while Microsoft’s progress is still relatively slow. I think the company has learned that it needs to work with various chipmakers, much like Google(s goog) does with its hardware partners, choosing different ones for Nexus devices, including Qualcomm, Texas Instruments (s txn) and Samsung. By choosing a chipmaker other than Nvidia, Microsoft would show that it has learned its lesson and won’t be integrating its strategy too tightly with a single silicon partner.

On paper, both chips are undoubtedly powerful enough for the next generation of Windows RT devices, not to mention Android smartphones and tablets. My gut, along with anecdotal evidence of late, tells me that when the next Surface RT device arrives, it will have silicon from Qualcomm, and not Nvidia, inside. It’s arguable, of course, but give it about six months or less and we should see which chipmaker wins the deal.