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Cloud is ARM's Secret Weapon Against Intel

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Another report came out today that sees the competition between Intel (s INTC), with its Atom processor, and ARM (s ARMH) chipmakers for the lion’s share of the mobile device market as the fight of the decade. So far, Intel is winning, with its Atom processor in several netbooks. But next year, a class of smaller devices, such as Qualcomm’s (s QCOM) Snapdragon or Nvidia’s (s NVDA) Tegra, based on the ARM architecture, will arrive next year and offer Atom’s x86-based devices some real competition.

For now, ARM-based chips, which you can find in every smartphone, have a big advantage: they work for longer periods of time on a single battery charge. Next-generation Intel processors coming in the 2009/2010 time frame are trying to close that gap, but the difference in architectures means ARM chips are still more power efficient. However, some of that power efficiency comes at the expense of clock speeds.

A big downside to using ARM chips in a netbook today is that a lot of software that people might want to run on their MIDs and netbooks is designed for x86 chips, such as those sold by Intel or VIA Technologies. However, as more data and applications reside in the cloud, the only thing a user needs is an operating system and possibly a broswer, which is why ARM has been focused on optimizing a variety of browsers on its IP cores (which are then licensed to chipmakers, who build the actual processors).

While an Intel executive recently said (then apologized for the statement) that the ARM chip inside the iPhone couldn’t handle the Internet, such efforts could position ARM to trump Intel in the mobile market. After all, if you can access your data all day without recharging, ARM-based computing looks pretty compelling.

21 Responses to “Cloud is ARM's Secret Weapon Against Intel”

  1. Doug Amos

    I came across this post while doing some research up here in March 2010. There’s some very prophetic words in here, especially Geoff’s comment “All it needs is someone to repackage the iphone with bigger screen and keyboard – job done! Plenty fast and powerful enough!”.
    Geoff, can you also tell me which lottery number will come up this week?
    For the record, the ARM’v’Atom battle is still in the early skirmish rounds, even now.

  2. Nick Eman

    “Cloud” – Sounds to me like the concept of credit…..then one day, the Cloud crashes and bye-bye data. Sorry but I am not comfortable with my data being “out there” anymore than it already is.

  3. Any comments on the future direction of Apple’s low-power processor development and associated products? Apple purchased PA-Semi last year (fabless processor design house), who specialized in low-power processor architecture. There should be some very good things resulting from this $200M + purchase by Apple…

  4. Ramesh Iyer

    Hi Stacey,

    Interesting article and we agree fully. Here are a few emerging dynamics in the netbook space:

    1. Cloud computing (for those that remember the good old days of dumb terminals) is being eyed enthusiastically by the IT guys for the following reasons:

    – Allows them to drive down the cost of the corporate laptop
    – Your data can also be mirrored on the server, and therefore, data recovery in the event of a crash or stolen machines is much easier
    – Deploying new laptops is a breeze. No more 1-2 hour installation of complex Vista/XP loads.

    2. ARM-based SoC’s (and OMAP from Texas Instruments has a lion’s share of the smartphone space) will continue to lower power consumption, find innovative ways to pack more features, and leverage optimized software as key.

    3. Linux based applications will continue to evolve. Office applications is a classic example – at one time, OpenOffice was the only solution. We’ve already encountered 3 others in the past 6 months who claim to have a solution that is better and that looks-and-smells-and-feels like MS Office. Naturally, cloud computing could obliterate the need for these Office apps but the Linux community shows no signs of slowing down.

    4. If cloud computing (aka thin client machines) do succeed, there is no need for the Intel juggernaut to drive a stake in the ground wrt GHz. After all, why need the GHz when apps are resident on a central server. Focus on long battery life (14 hours for a netbook i.e. the same usage model as the smartphone – charge your netbook only once a day) and low retail price. And, that has been a central theme behind TI’s OMAP3 messaging – low price, high performance, low power consumption, extremely small PCB footprint, optimized software and reuse of hardware and software across multiple product segments.

    BTW, please don’t forget to write about TI’s OMAP3. Its shipping now and in products now and was the first commercially shipping Cortex-A8-based processor. The Archos-5 player (based on Texas Instruments OMAP3 and a MID aka Internet Media Tablet) won EDN’s Best of 2008 award for Best Media Product.

  5. lennypwallbrook

    I’ve done a lot of development on both Intel and ARM and others. This includes both hardware and software. When it comes to portable devices, ARM wins hands down on performance. Note: this means that the ARM meets the required specifications for the device at the lowest cost for both development and maintainance.

    Realistically what is going to matter is which company’s product will give the manufacturer a higher profit. Unfortunately this will all boil down to marketing rather than anything else. Intel is a household name which people can identify with — a major plus for the “Intel Inside” crowd; this sells. Very few people outside the industry have heard of ARM though they use their architecture daily without any real problems.

    Another factor that will drive this battle is the power source. The right power source could make a moot point of efficiency arguments. If your device can stay on all weekend and take 5 minutes to charge who cares.

  6. Jay Goldberg

    Good post. I agree strongly about the next big conflict in the chip industry.
    We met with ARM last week, they certainly seemed confident. We mentioned the argument about all these devices only needing a good browser. They pointed out that you can run full-fledged mobile OS on ARM as well. Between Android and MS WinMo, there will be plenty of software developers running on ARM platforms.
    Most interesting to us have been the comments coming out of Qualcomm. Ever since they settled with Nokia, its been interesting to watch the change in their positioning. Their analyst day presentation really looked like they were aiming squarely at Intel.
    Anyway, I again extend the offer to share what industry data we have gathered with you. We have talked to all the major baseband vendors in the past two weeks, and found some good data. I’m happy to treat for lunch. I’m getting to be a regular at La Mer Ceviche (I think that’s in your neighborhood).