ARM vs Intel: Just starting or already over?

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Notebook makers are bidding on chip supplies from both Intel and those provided by vendors using the ARM architecture. DigiTimes, which tracks Asian hardware suppliers and device makers, reports that the reason companies are bidding on both chip types is to better compete on price with Apple. That may be true, but in the long run, it’s not the real story.

More important is that this action is the next round of the chip wars between Intel and those who build ARM-based CPUs.

This battle has been building for several years as mobile computing — on smartphones and tablets — has quickly matured, while traditional desktop computing has stagnated. As early as last December, for example, smartphones began outselling personal computers and those sales show no signs of stopping. The biggest difference, at least in terms of the chips that power these two markets, has been one of strategy.

Until recent years, Intel focused its efforts on what’s called the “clock speed” of CPUs, rapidly increasing the performance of computer chips to better handle desktop operating systems and processor-intensive applications. Less thought was given to reducing the power consumption requirements of these chips.

Contrast that to chips built on the ARM architecture, which is licensed out to chip-makers such as Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Freescale and a host of others. Instead of the “top-down” strategy of boosting performance first and focusing on power requirements second, ARM chips have used a “bottom up” approach. Early ARM chips weren’t capable of running complex software, but could run for days between charges. Once the power requirements of the silicon were effectively managed, ARM chips began to ramp up performance; most recently with quad-core chips that can offer 16 hours of high-definition playback on a tablet.

These chips now power everything from phones to tablets to e-readers, all markets that have two things in common: They’re all growing, and Intel’s silicon is inside few of them. This confirms early analyst expectations from January 2010 when ABI predicted that more mobile devices would be running on ARM chips instead of Intel’s silicon by 2013.

As if that wasn’t bad enough for Intel, Microsoft demonstrated in January that its next version of Windows, possibly available in 2012, doesn’t require Intel’s chips to run. Instead, Microsoft is optimizing its operating system for use on the battery-friendly ARM-based chips; now that these CPUs have improved their performance, they’re capable of running Windows on notebook computers. Microsoft’s software will still support x86 chips from Intel, likely for many years to come, but the trend is clear.

Intel continues to shift its strategies towards improving battery life with its chips, reportedly planning to speed up the product cycle. Plus it’s trying to jump-start what it calls the “ultrabook” category of notebooks. But the damage is already done, especially if notebook makers are already bidding on chips from both Intel and from ARM licensees. At least Intel doesn’t have to worry about the silicon it makes for large servers… Oh wait; that’s the next battle after this one, which is also ramping up soon.

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