September 26, 2007 4:04 AM PDT

Intel has ARM in its crosshairs

Intel could not have signaled its target for the next five years any more clearly than it did at last week's Intel Developer Forum.

The world's largest chipmaker didn't make a whole lot of news at the latest edition of IDF, but it did send a message to the legion of chipmakers that build chips based on the ARM architecture: We're coming for you.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

That didn't exactly send shivers down the spine of executives at Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Samsung, STMicroelectronics and others that build chips for mobile phones. They've seen this coming for a long time, an inevitable consequence of Intel finding itself with reams of chipmaking capacity and a maturing PC market. And Intel has already tried this once, spending billions trying to develop a combination of chips for the cell phone market but failing miserably.

Following Intel's show in San Francisco last week, ARM developers will be meeting next week in Santa Clara, Calif.--Intel's hometown--for its annual developers' conference to discuss new applications and techniques for extracting more performance out of ARM's processor cores. The collective effort of both camps should do wonders to jump-start a market for mobile devices built for real people, not just coffee-toting executives rushing through O'Hare trying to get the 7:42 flight to San Francisco.

Intel's definitely the challenger, not the favorite, when handicapping the looming showdown between the two companies. ARM is very well-known inside the tech industry, although its lack of an "ARM Inside" marketing campaign means that few mobile phone owners know much about the 1,700-employee design company based in Cambridge, England.

But there's an ARM core chip of some type or another inside almost every mobile phone on the planet, and in many cases, there are a couple. Chip companies like TI and Samsung license cores from ARM, and then build the processor and assemble the rest of the chips needed for modern mobile phones and their more powerful cousins, smart phones.

We must have a comparable power envelope.
--Gadi Singer, assistant
general manager,
Intel Ultra Mobility Group

Despite its earlier struggles, Intel thinks it can be the company that vastly improves the mobile Internet experience by creating chips for a whole new category of devices. We're talking about mobile devices that are more powerful and nimble than current smart phones, and sleeker and with better battery life than today's mobile minitablets.

This is where the next battleground will be fought in the chip industry. ARM and its partners have a long history of working in environments where battery life is often the most important consideration. They also have the benefit of having gotten there first. Intel, however, brings a ton of experience developing products for advanced computing, and has challenged itself to redouble its efforts to harness power consumption.

A few years ago, Intel tried to get into mobile phones with a product called Manitoba. That project was an attempt to waltz into the mobile phone industry by integrating one of its XScale applications processor (based on ARM's instruction set, coincidentally) a communications processor, and some flash memory into a single package. It was a flop. Intel was never able to convince phone makers to take a risk on its products, and it sold the business to Marvell last year for $600 million.

However, the trends that made Intel take interest in the mobile market aren't going away. PC sales growth is slowing in the U.S. and Western Europe (PC vendors shipped 239 million units during 2006, according to Gartner, up 9.5 percent from 2005), and while PCs are still hot in emerging markets, it's only a matter of time before growth there settles in at a respectable 10 percent clip.

Smart phones, on the other hand, are taking off. Mobile phones as a whole already sell more than a billion units a year, and Gartner thinks smart-phone shipments (defined as phones that can run sophisticated operating systems and access the Internet) are set to grow 52 percent from 2007 to 2008, from 102 million units in 2007 to 156 million by the end of next year.

So after failing to dial into the phone market, Intel now wants to invent an entirely new product in anticipation of a mobile computing world. The concept--for now--is called the MID (mobile Internet device), and was once known as the UMPC (ultramobile PC).

Next year, Intel plans to introduce a chip called Silverthorne that uses the x86 instruction set found in every PC chip from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. The design goal for Silverthorne is to consume 10 times less power than the first Banias Pentium M chip Intel introduced in 2003.

"We must have a comparable power envelope," said Gadi Singer, assistant general manager of Intel's Ultra Mobility Group. Many ARM chips run comfortably while consuming less than a watt of power, and that's the goal for Silverthorne. Beyond Silverthorne, Intel wants to cut idle power consumption by another factor of 10 with Moorestown, a future ultra-low power project introduced last week that CEO Paul Otellini said would arrive by 2010.

As its silicon design teams pursue these power consumption goals, Intel's busy selling the merits of the x86 instruction set as the blueprint for future mobile computing. The idea is that there are a lot of application developers with considerable experience in the PC-based x86 world just itching for a chance to get into different types of devices. By extension, x86 developers are in the best position to improve the software experience on today's mobile phones, or so the pitch goes.

CONTINUED: Linux part of Intel's strategy…
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is in Cambridge, not London.
Posted by dpapas (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
You're right
Thanks, we'll fix that.
Posted by Tom Krazit (436 comments )
Link Flag
Intel's ARM Competition
You write:"Intel's definitely the challenger, not the favorite, when handicapping the looming showdown between the two companies. "
Posted by john oehrle (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Intel and ARM
I know that ARM isn't specifically mentioned in the sentence, but that's what the entire article is about.
Posted by aka_tripleB (2211 comments )
Link Flag
Intel has shown it has the resources and patients to never fail
Sure, Intel, like all companies have had 'product related' set backs, however, Intel never utimately fails.

The are patient as a monk and persistant as a four year old after candy.

The world is Intel's oyster. I would never underestimate Intel.
Posted by onlyauser (220 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Intel never fails???
Pentium IV has been a major failure, they reverted back to Pentium III, improved it and now this old reworked thingie called brand new Core2.

They produced XSCale.But it has been used in big PDAs only.Since Intel has MHz mania.They unable to stop on clocking their MHz up higher abd higher, so their CPUs are power hog when it comes to question to run several days marathon from 3.6V 900mAh battery while doing something useful.It is not enough to squeeze power consumed my Pentium M by factor 5 or 10, it will eat mobile device battery too fast anyway.
Posted by t3st3r` (60 comments )
Link Flag
Posted by mwohl (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
browser comparison seems unfair
A very important reason that the browsers and web pages are different on PCs from those on mobile phones is that the pages that must be displayed are vastly different in size, and must be differently laid out because the input mechanisms for links and buttons are so very different.

That difference is not going to go away just because X86 software can be used on a mobile phone. You'd just get unusable web pages for the phone.

And, of course, the buginess of the mobile browsers mainly derives from the fact that they have seen relatively little use and so relatively little developer eyeballs.
Posted by frankly0 (28 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree
It's like comparing the performance of Itanium to the Core 2 Duo. Sure, Itanium's the highest performing chip in Intel's arsenal, but it's not going to work very well in a PC.

But Intel's argument is that experienced x86 developers will be able to create better mobile browsers than ARM developers, who right now have to work with a multitude of operating systems and core technologies. Intel has to make some sort of promise that way, because they won't have competitive products out until next year.

And this software argument is where Intel will have to deliver, because they're trying to displace an instruction set that's already well accepted in this area. Not only will they have to match the power/performance of ARM chips, they'll have to give hardware makers and application developers a real reason to walk away from the investments they've already made in ARM.
Posted by Tom Krazit (436 comments )
Link Flag
Let's decent comparison.Look at n800 :)
Linux is cross platform.As well as Firefox engine.So, actually you can browse even ajax and flash sites on ARM-based device.Ha-ha, just some incompetent words in this article.Article is worth nothing.
Posted by t3st3r` (60 comments )
Link Flag
n800 does uses Ti OMAP and provides decent browsing experience.
- Browser is Opera 8.5 built for ARM.
- Flash 9 is here, built for ARM as well
- There is beta of MicroB browser, who runs Gecko 1.9, this is engine of FireFox 3.0...

And yes, web browsing experience can be great.Yes, on ARM CPU.So if Intel unable to do something working with ARM set they're trying to deal with ancient x86 stuff which is over 20 years old.Actually, ARM is much more efficient when it comes to performance vs consumed power ratio.Intel was NEVER able to acheive good power consumption on their CPUs and nobody needs devices sucking all their battery within couple of hours.For example Ti OMAP performs quite tricky power saving techniques.Years ahead things Intel can offer.
Posted by t3st3r` (60 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Comments about browsers being a factor to x86 development are lacking in context with our current capabilities. You must take into account what Apple has done, Android is doing, and multitouch in general. The reasons for creating a browser based upon limited viewing area are diminishing quickly to no reason at all.
Posted by Thomas, David (1947 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ARM'S Cores are synthesized using RTL and Synopsys. Intel's cores use Domino Logic that needs to be carefully designed transistor by transistor. If Intel is Patek-Phillippe, ARM is Swatch.

I know what I am talking about.
Posted by bapcha (2 comments )
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