With the Arrival of Mobile Dual-core Chips, Wintel Needs to Worry

snapdragondevices.jpgThe twin assault of ever-so-powerful mobile chips such as the new dual-core Snapdragon from Qualcomm and Google’s Android OS along with the looming specter of tablets (and slow shift away from PCs) mean the decades-old Wintel (Intel+Microsoft) duopoly is facing its worst crisis yet.

One of the reasons is that mobile chip makers are starting to churn out chips that are arguably as powerful as some low-end computer chips, which will give today’s smartphones and a growing number of tablets a steroid-like boost. Qualcomm, one of the largest mobile chip makers, today announced its first dual-CPU chipsets with cores running at clock speeds of up to 1.5 GHz. This would be the third generation of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon products. While the first generation was running at 1 GHz, the second-generation chipsets had up to 1.3 GHz and multimedia extensions. The newest line-up will have dual CPU cores running enhanced cores at speeds of 1.2 GHz and 1.5 GHz.

The San Diego-based chip maker is well known for its Snapdragon line of mobile chipsets, which now power devices such as HTC Incredible and Google’s Nexus One phone. Snapdragon chipsets are also being targeted at smartbooks (low-power netbooks that don’t use Windows OS) and tablets. Qualcomm says nearly 140 devices are using Snapdragon chipsets, including Acer’s Liquid and neoTouch smartphones, Dell’s Streak 5-inch Android tablet, Huawei’s S7 tablet and Lenovo’s LePhone smartphone.

These new chips can handle HSPA+ speeds and include a GPU that has 3D/2D acceleration engines for Open GLES 2.0 and Open VG 1.1 acceleration, 1080p video encode/decode, a dedicated low-power audio engine, integrated low-power GPS and support for 24-bit WXGA 1280×800 resolution displays. Now those are capabilities you’d normally associate with a low-cost laptop. In other words, these chips are not only going to give tablets (hopefully Android-powered) a big boost, they are going to make our superphones even more nimble and nifty.

A few weeks ago I argued that ARM-based chips were going to be a big problem for Intel, which till recently has ruled the chip world with impunity because of its domination of the PC industry. Qualcomm’s new chips are only adding fuel to that fire. Intel, which recently introduced dual-core Atom processors, faces the inevitable: industry choices in a low-margin, high-volume business, something which is alien to its corporate DNA.

At Computex in Taipei, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said that while a lot of people are developing tablets with Windows, he believes that Android is going to run away with the tablet and smartbook opportunities. And he’s betting many will use his Tegra 2 chips.

Windows is too big and it’s too full featured for smartbooks and tablets. “The good news is that we finally have an operating system to unite behind. Android is an operating system that has gained a tremendous amount of momentum all over the world. Andy Rubin and his team [at Google] know exactly where the industry needs to go. Android started out as a phone but it’s not lost on them that the tablet is going to be very important and that the Android operating system has to evolve, and be enhanced in certain capabilities, in order to be a good tablet operating system.

I certainly agree as I’ve argued for Google to throw its considerable weight behind Android and forget about Chrome OS. And just as Intel needs to worry about these low-cost, increasingly powerful dual-core mobile chipsets, Microsoft needs to take Huang’s comments very seriously. With tablets expected to be priced at budget prices, it would be hard for tablet makers to work with Microsoft’s model, which involves paying for an operating system. On the flip side, you have Google, happy to share a portion of its revenues derived from search-based advertising.

Well, let’s just sit back and enjoy what comes next!

Related GigaOM Pro Research: For Phones, the Future is Multiple Cores

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