September 26, 2007 4:04 AM PDT
Intel has ARM in its crosshairs
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Intel is determined to drive that point home. Last Wednesday, during a speech delivered by Intel's Anand Chandrasekher, the company's marketing team fired the first salvo against ARM. Intel attempted to draw a direct comparison between the two architectures by counting the numbers of errors encountered while browsing the Internet on notebook PCs with Intel's chips, versus mobile phones and Internet tablets with ARM's processor cores.
The implication was that ARM-based devices aren't suitable for reading anything beyond stripped-down mobile Web pages because of compatibility problems, and that anyone thinking about buying a mobile device or developing one should choose an Intel-based device to receive the best possible experience.
Intel refused multiple requests to publicly identify the ARM-based devices it used in making its comparisons, citing the need to avoid embarrassing the very partners it might be courting with chips like Silverthorne. Walter Grayeski, who works in the competitive marketing segment of Intel's Ultra Mobility Group, said the company chose phones that were marketed as smart phones, not the basic phones that you can get for free with a two-year subscription.
Many of the browsers on those phones weren't necessarily designed to work with sites designed for PC browsers, and Intel thinks that's part of the reason why it will one day have an advantage. "It's fragmented," Grayeski said, referring to the number of players in ARM's world and their competing interests. Not all of the mobile browsers on ARM phones support Web standards like Flash, which automatically excludes a fair number of Web pages from a smart phone's browser.
There's no doubt as to the ubiquity of x86 software. But ARM thinks the more appropriate question is whether x86 software is simply too large for a power-constrained environment like a smart phone.
"The memory footprint, for a start, dictates what runs on some of these devices. Do you need a hard drive in there to go run an operating system?" said Ian Drew, vice president of segment marketing for ARM. "More memory consumes more power."
Intel's stance is understandable, because the company is just now turning its attention to the ultra-low power market and it has to sell the advantages it already has, said Will Strauss, an analyst with Forward Concepts.
"ARM's way ahead in low-power processors," Strauss said. "The PC (industry) says, 'we can bring x86 to the market,' but do you really need the x86 architecture for this wonderful new thing?"
ARM is aware that it has work to do to head off Intel's challenge, especially as more and more applications are accessed via the Internet, not on the device itself. Another ARM executive, Kerry McGuire, director of strategic alliances for mobile computing, noted that users of Nokia's N800 Internet tablet can download Firefox to run on ARM. But that's a much more powerful device compared with the breadth of what is available running ARM's instruction set.
"I think you'll always want a better browsing experience, and I think plug-ins become more important in this space," ARM's Drew said. "That's where I think the software initiatives should be."
And that's one area where Intel thinks it has an advantage, given the powerful software already available for Windows and Linux PCs. Linux, especially, will be an important part of Intel's strategy.
The first UMPCs were designed in cooperation with Microsoft, with plans to run Windows XP and Windows Vista. But since the Spring IDF in Beijing, Intel has been gradually backing away from its long-time partner to tout Linux-based operating systems for MIDs.
Last week, it invited Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth on stage during Chandrasekher's keynote to discuss implementing Canonical's Ubuntu Linux in future MIDs. Chandrasekher later said that Microsoft remains an important partner for Intel in the mobile space.
"But we're getting clear requests (for Linux) from customers for a variety of reasons--lower power, and smaller footprint is another," Chandrasekher said. And by extension, there are a lot of Linux enthusiasts who would love to get their hands on an open x86 mobile computer like an MID.
A solid argument can be made on behalf of either company. Intel, with a lot of money and plenty of smart engineers looking for The Next Big Thing, isn't a company to be taken lightly. ARM has the home field advantage--and the help of some heavyweights who would love to keep Intel out of one of the fastest-growing markets on the planet. So who has the inside edge?
"I won't decide that, and nor will Intel," Drew said. "Who will decide this will be the consumers. We have to provide the infrastructure and the products, and if we both don't do it, the (industry) won't grow."
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