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This story was updated and rewritten with information from Intel at 11:55 pm.
At the Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco on Tuesday, Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich showed off a new system on a chip that’s designed for the internet of things. The first Quark core is one-fifth the size of the 22-nanometer Atom chips designed for smartphones, and operates at a tenth of the power. Intel says it has an “open architecture,” which boils down to Intel offering hooks in the silicon to add others’ IP blocks.
Intel does not plan to license the core itself, something analysts hoped it meant when it said it allow others to integrate their own IP with the core. As for the core Intel’s spokeswoman Caludia Mangano said that the first product in the Quark family is a synthesizable Pentium ISA compatible CPU core. It also includes a software stack that includes security, manageability and connectivity features well suited for IoT. No word on what standards might be supported in that software stack.
The key word for most analysts in that statement is synthesizable, which means that customers can add their own IP around the core. ARM for example let’s companies license its CPU core and then add their own co-processors, or other components to create chips optimized for a wide variety of projects and industries. How they would do this in practice is unclear as Mangano says that Intel plans to keep the manufacturing of the Quark SoCs in-house at Intel’s manufacturing facilities, but noted that it could be made elsewhere.
However, this news is big for Intel’ which has been chastised for missing the smartphone and mobile market. With Quark it seems to be ready to leapfrog past failures in mobile on its way to a computing experience that will be far more pervasive. Yet, selling chips for connected machines and wearables is a different business than selling chips for servers and PCS. The average selling price of these chips are far lower, although they will be many more of them. It will all boil down to margins — a worry that financial analysts brought up when Atom launched, but Intel has sidestepped because the chip hasn’t been as successful.
The other questions about Quark are more details about the “new” architecture and specs. Because this was what was Intel calls a technology disclosure, it’s just teasing the basics and Mangano declined to get into specifics on wattage, size and detailed block diagrams.
An Intel press releases notes that Intel will sample form-factor reference boards based on the first product in this family during the fourth quarter of this year, which means actual devices built with Quark won’t be out until next year. The chip will initially appear in the industrial, energy and transportation segments, although Krzanich showed off a bracelet as another example of where the chip could go.
For Intel, this represents a concession that the internet of things will require a more flexible, smaller and lower-power piece of silicon. We’ll have to wait for more details and customers to see if Intel delivers.