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Commentary: How Intel Can Take Over The Mobile Chipset Market

Radford C. Aug 20, 2012 0

Intel Atom Chip

The Intel vs. ARM  war has been brewing inside the corporate walls for both companies for quite sometime. Wired wrote a comprehensive piece on how Intel’s sneaky move into the mobile market will create an interesting shakeup not seen since the deal for Wintel machines back in the mid 90’s. Those were the days when CEO Andy Grove was at the helm. Now it’s Paul Otellini turn on the executive chair. His wildcard? Mike Bell, whom Otellini hired to turn Intel into the premier chip provider in the phone industry.

He’s something who Wired eloquently describes as “a rebellious presence in the buttoned-up confines of Intel”.

“As long as it’s not illegal, Paul’s given me permission to break any policy,” Bell says. “I don’t like lots of meetings. We make decisions and we go.”

It’s much needed really. Intel is tied to the PC market and ARM is in position to be the post-PC chip manufacturer for a fast rising mobile tech industry. Moore’s Law may not apply in the near future as tablets and touch-based smartphones are become just as ubiquitous as PCs. Microsoft is in transition as they try to tie the desktop to the mobile screen and Intel is sites right in the middle of the battlefield.

Wired reports:

Today ARM chips are found in more than 95 percent of the cell phones on the market—including the iPhone and almost every Android phone. The most advanced smartphones in the world contain multiple ARM processing engines—Samsung’s Galaxy S3 i9300 holds as many as 14.

This represents an existential crisis for Intel; the future of computing is small and battery-powered. As sales of smartphones and tablets quickly outpaced those of traditional PCs, the chipmaker faced obsolescence unless it could become a player in these markets.

Sure enough, they are. With Windows 8 tablets and new Windows Phone 8 handsets making their way to the finish line, Intel has Clover Trail which I personally think is a game changer.

To date, they have about 20 tablets using this chipset.  Tablets with Clover Trail chips will be less than 9 millimeters thick, weigh less than 680 grams and provide more than nine hours of battery life, according to Intel. The features will also include 3G/4G LTE capabilities and advanced security and manageability features.

Crazy thing is ARM has been doing this forever and more developers are taking advantage as they slowly close in on the app count between desktop software and mobile apps. Even crazier, Clover Trail tablets (Windows 8) will likely go head-to-head with tablets running Windows RT OS, which is an upcoming version of the OS for ARM processors.

The biggest differentiator is developers in the x86 architecture versus ARM to which Hermann Eul, president of Intel Mobile Communications Group said that would be of “incredible value” and “should not be underestimated”.

I believe him.

The decision on whether to pick x86 or choose ARM needs to be supported by a thorough investigation on the possibilities and limitations to the respective alternatives. If you ask any developer who writes for ARM (i.e. iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.), you’ll likely find that those developers are also x86 guys (i.e. PC, Windows, .NET, etc.). Wired reports ARM chips outselling Intel microprocessors 24 times over, but Intel’s revenue is 68 times higher.

It’s a choice on processor performance, power consumption and price but also on eco system of hardware and software components, user interface, development strategy and efforts.

In my experience, a development project’s top priorities are commonly development cost, maintenance of software, etc. But the one thing most consumers may not understand (which also includes why certain games and software never get ported) is the cost per unit for the complete system along with upcoming features and performance of the product.

So if  Angry Birds developer Rovio charges $1 per device for every download of their flagship title, that one dollar better cover the maintenance fees of bugs, updates, new features, etc. In the case of Angry Birds, it works out when your game is a household name.

In the end, Intel’s biggest card is to draw upon the power of developers in the x86 community. If they do this, they can single-handedly take over the mobile chipset arena through sheer apps.

From Wired:

Intel paid $1.4 billion to acquire German chipmaker Infineon Technologies’ wireless division (which uses ARM designs for its communications chips). Then, in a conscious move to insulate his team, Bell piled everyone into an unmarked Intel building a few miles from headquarters and loaded it with junk food, caffeinated beverages, and couches. Soon after, he raised the pirate flag. (Just so nobody would miss the point, he installed pirate flags at his desk near Otellini’s.)

The phone team operated like a typical startup, its members toiling through nights and weekends and collapsing onto couches after working 36 hours straight. In just over a year, they had built a reference design phone that, with only a few tweaks, carriers could manufacture and sell directly to their customers. In January 2012, Otellini showed it off at CES, announcing that Lenovo had agreed to produce the phone in China. Called the K800, it included a camera that could fire off 15 photos in less than a second and a software fix that enabled it to run the majority of Android apps—meaning that most developers wouldn’t need to rewrite their software for the Intel handset. Perhaps most important, Otellini announced that other customers had already signed on to build their own phones using Intel’s new chips.

Intel has something to celebrate for (which they did) but the report goes on to say that Intel will have to not only change their philosophy in chip development but in how they do business as well. Qualcomm, for instance, dominates the smartphone market, capturing 50 percent of all revenue, which gives it the power to squeeze phone makers like HTC and LG for the right to use its technology.

With Intel in the mobile chipset market, the giant chipmaker could offer a welcome counterbalance.

Right now, ARM has the main advantage of a first mover. There is no question that with enough time Intel could have matched and beaten chips that are based on ARM’s architecture in battery life, performance, price, and suitability for tablets and phones, but ARM was just so early to market.

How early? Try 1987.

It’s been known that ARM powers the iPhone and iPad, but what’s probably not as widespread knowledge as those devices (and the stuff that powers it), is that Apple needed a new kind of chip that consumed low power in order to power its Newton tablet (yes, see year above). That’s how long ARM has been around. Even more interesting, Apple co-founded ARM. Read this if you don’t believe me. It explains why ARM has dominated the market for this long and has allowed the company to completely monopolise mobile chips so quickly.

But Intel does a variety of things well too. Intel has the best manufacturing capabilities in the world for chips, hands down. In fact, if Google had to give any credit outside of its own company on the latest versions of Android, it’s Intel. They take care of the software and Intel is signing contracts where it matters. At CES, I found out that Motorola had plans to roll out lots of Intel smartphones. This was huge news at the time, and I think I was the only one that reacted with eyes widened. That the market under-reacted on that day, until Google bought Motorola. First Android gets fully optimised for Intel chips, then Motorola announces a significant partnership with Intel. Is anyone else seeing a pattern with Google’s actions here, or is it just me?

Then there’s Intel’s deep partnership with Microsoft. With Windows 8 making full use of Clover Trail, Microsoft is turning its own OS into a battlefield between Intel and ARM. Could it be the changing of the guard? It’s very possible. Personally, I think it’s more likely that we can see Intel overtake Qualcomm in two years time. Hell, another guy (who no small potatoes) predicts three years, but hey it’s going to happen.