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ARM has already conquered the world of smart phones and tablets, thanks to its Microsoft-inspired approach to licensing. Intel has thus far shown little resistance. Can ARM duplicate that success in the notebook market? (NVIDIA "Kal-el" Tegra pictured)  (Source: KitGuru)

Windows 8 is launching next year, complete with ARM support.  (Source: Google Images)

Corresponding with the launch of Windows 8, ARM will next year launch its new Cortex A15 architecture. Early models are expected to pack four cores and run at 2.5 GHz. Later models will pack up to eight cores. NVIDIA and Qualcomm are already designing A15 chips for laptops and tablets. The architecture is expected to increase power efficiency by a factor of 5 from A9, thanks to a die-shrink to 28 nm.  (Source: ARM Holdings)
Intel hopes to cling to eroding market position

Intel Corp. (INTC) is facing the biggest threat to its world dominance of the personal computing market in almost two decades.  Now it has revealed that it may take extreme steps to try to preserve its lead.

I. The Rise of ARM

The threat materialized slowly.  

Leading the way was ARM Holdings plc (ARMH), makers of the ARM architecture.  Over the last couple decades ARM chips came to dominate the embedded electronics market, being found in everything from cars to washing machines.  But despite their low cost and power efficiency, the ARM architecture was dismissed by Intel as being unable to compete in computing power.

Then ARM hit smart phones.

Starting with Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone and Research in Motion Ltd.'s (RIM) Blackberry smart phones, ARM slowly established itself as the exclusive architecture of the smart phone market.  

Today it has taken over yet another market -- tablets.  Apple's iPad tablet and subsequent tablets from Google Inc. (GOOG) all use ARM processors.

With computing demands for these mobile devices ever rising, the computing power divide between ARM and x86 designs from Intel has begun to be bridged, with dual-core and quad-core designs hitting the market.  And the platform's market dominance is also drastically reducing the compatibility app, with ARM apps now able to handle most popular file formats like Excel and Word documents.

II. How Mobile Was Won

Key to ARM's dominance has been licensing its architectures rather than insisting on making them itself.  The company has over 200 licensing partners, including seven in China and 15 in Taiwan.  Among the highest profile ARM chipmakers are South Korea's Samsung Electronics (005930) (which co-designs chips with Intrinsity) and U.S.-based Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN), Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM), and NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA).

Much as abandoning a closed-garden model helped Microsoft beat Apple in the 90s PC market, ARM has similarly leveraged its open licensing in mobile to outprice and outclass Intel.

Microsoft has already announced that the next version of Windows -- Windows 8 -- will support ARM notebooks and tablets.  Google's Chrome OS, which is expected to make a spash in the operating system space will also support ARM designs in the near future.  Even Apple is rumored to have ARM netbooks/notebooks in the works.

With the market drifting towards ARM -- in the mobile space, at least -- Intel is desperate to hold off the rival architecture.

To that end Intel, according to Reuters, is considering allowing rival chipmakers like Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) to use its fabs.  Such a "coalition of the willing" formed by x86 chipmakers -- primarily Intel and AMD -- could hold perhaps hold off ARM longer than Intel alone.  

Intel has developed significant process upgrades recently, including 3D transistors.  However, ARM's fab partners, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Limited (TSM) are working on similar technologies.

Notably, Intel still seems opposed to licensing its own x86 architecture for modification by third parties and independent fabs, as ARM Holdings has done.  It says it has considered such a move, but characterizes it as "a tough decision".

III. ARM Plots PC Takeover

Even as Intel wavers on the topic of licensing, ARM is hungrily eyeing the notebook or netbook market, where its cheap, power-efficient central processors could make a big splash.

Arm Holdings President Tudor Brown spoke at the Taiwan hardware convention Computex this year, stating, "Today we have about 10 percent market share [in mobile PCs]. By the end of 2011 we believe we will have about 15 percent of that market share as tablets grow. By 2015, we expect that to be over 50 percent of the mobile PC market."

But he says the focus is still on smart phones and the embedded market, commenting, "Traditional PC chips only accounted for 6 percent of our whole PC chip shipments of 6 billion units last year; the contribution will still be less than 10 percent in the future."

The message seems clear -- ARM feels confident that it can take half the tablet, netbook, and notebook market without significant effort.

Mr. Brown expressed confidence that it will at least keep up with Intel in process development.  He says that his firm is working closely with hardware giant International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) to put cutting edge transistor technology into the hands of ARM licensees.  He states, "We've been working at 20 nanometer and we've had test chips at 20 nanometer for over a year."

He says that IBM and ARM Holdings are currently testing 14 nm chips.  Intel is currently manufacturing chips at the 32 nm node, though it is working on its own future 22 nm architectures code-named Haswell and Broadwell.  Intel also is reportedly starting to formulate 14 nm architectures dubbed Skywell and Skymont.  Intel has been far more secretive of these designs, though, than ARM has with its own 14 nm plans, so it's uncertain exactly how far Intel has come.

Mr. Brown hinted that he feels Intel will need to make major changes to stay competitive.  He comments, "It's important that Intel makes a change in their business model. Intel has never done this before, so we have to take it very seriously."

IV. Cortex A15 -- Finally a PC-Worthy ARM Core

Key to ARM's netbook/notebook invasion will be the Cortex A15 core. The A15 design introduces core "clusters", allowing the core count to double from four cores with the previous A9 architecture to eight cores (four cores each in two clusters).  The new design also allows chip speeds of up to 2.5 GHz, bumping the A9's limit of 2.0 GHz.

Additionally, the smaller transistor size allows for even more dramatic power reductions.  ARM officials say the new design will offer five times the processing per unit of power versus A9.

NVIDIA, who announced its A9-based Kal-el quad-core system on a chip today, is planning to launch a A15 design dubbed "Wayne" sometime in 2012 (an allusion to Bruce Wayne of DC Comics fame).  Wayne will be built on a 28 nm process.

Qualcomm, currently the leading Android ARM chipmaker, will release a quad-core 2.5 GHz A15 chip, dubbed APQ8064, in "early" 2012.

Many PC enthusiasts scoff at the possibility of ARM gaining significant notebook market share.  This perspective is understandable -- a dual core 1.5 GHz processor doesn't necessarily have the power needed for a notebook.  However, a 2.5 GHz quad-core sure might.

Next year should be an intriguing one in the personal computing market, with the launch of Windows 8 and the Cortex A15 core design.

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RE: Enough hype already!
By fsd on 5/30/2011 7:34:01 PM , Rating: 2
That's exactly the point. For ARM there are dozens of companies making them with about half a dozen big players (TI, Samsung, Qualcomm, Nvidia, etc..). On the x86 side you have only 3, 2 of significance, Intel, AMD, and Cyrix. So if you are talking "gas stations," Intel and AMD across the street from each other and Cyrix a few miles away, the pricing won't be that competitive and Intel gets a royalty regardless of who you buy from.

In the ARM market, ARM gets a royalty, but doesn't limit the number of vendors, so you could have half a dozen competitive vendors competing for customers. If you compared Intel's pricing to ARM chips, it's way out there. An Atom D525 is about $60 in mid volume, while a Nvidia Tegra 2 is supposedly around $25 in volume. While Atom SOC will be less, the rumors were that it was around $50. Huge price difference, and if Intel lowers the pricing, they lose the large margins they were used to. So is it worth it for them to do so? Sell at a lower price, and sell probably fewer mid/entry higher margin CPUs which are displaced by the Atom SOC, to sell more low end SOC chips?

You can't compare previous RISC companies to x86, due to the Windows/Intel market share and economies of scale Intel got from the consumer market. RISC chips were virtually never in the consumer market, however IBM Power and Sun Sparc RISC architectures are still used in enterprise servers and supercomputer systems. They just don't have the economy of scale of a Windows/Intel system. That's where Nvidia Project Denver is supposed to make headway, because it builds on an economy of scale from consumer smartphones and tablets to keep volume high and pricing in the consumer range.

I would also suspect Sony (per NGP portable quad ARM and perhaps PS4 on ARM), and possibly others (Apple?), will move to ARM for more standardization on the software side.

RE: Enough hype already!
By SPOOFE on 5/30/2011 9:40:12 PM , Rating: 2
RISC chips were virtually never in the consumer market

The Playstation 2 would disagree with you.

RE: Enough hype already!
By fsd on 5/30/2011 11:07:27 PM , Rating: 2
Although that's not relevant to the topic of Intel compared to ARM or RISC architecture in the PC market. Intel had PC product and RISC based PC comparison doesn't involve Playstation.

RE: Enough hype already!
By SPOOFE on 5/30/2011 11:46:34 PM , Rating: 2
And then that's just moving the goalposts. The fact remains is that RISC outnumbers CISC and has for years now; it's not exactly some unheard-of architecture that nobody has any experience with.

And I think it's especially funny that you focus on PC's in light of Intel's desire to get their products into... phones.

RE: Enough hype already!
By fsd on 5/31/2011 12:04:45 AM , Rating: 2
Spending time on semantics is irrelevant. The topic is Mobile PC. A smartphone is a PC of a different kind as it does the same functions with slightly different software. I'm not making reference to CISC and RISC, you are. I am referring to the previous poster that compared x86 to "IBM Power, DEC Alpha, Sun SPARC, MIPS, Transmeta etc," nothing to do with what you are referring to. The PC market is the Windows consumer market, all others are a small percentage (PS2 sales over the same period is only a few percent of PC sales). That is the point, will the ARM mobile PC/PC market grow larger than the Intel x86 market. That's what the article is about, Intel x86 compared to ARM, not some not relevant argument about architecture or markets where Intel doesn't compete. Not sure why people waste time on semantics.

RE: Enough hype already!
By SPOOFE on 5/31/2011 12:21:27 AM , Rating: 2
The topic is Mobile PC.

Sure, but "Mobile PC" doesn't exist in a vacuum. All the technology that will be put into mobile PC's in the future are going to be influenced by technology that came before it... and RISC is a common technology, been around for years, and is very, very mature and well supported.

You tried to draw some arbitrary distinction between RISC and CISC that is just plain wrong.

I'm not making reference to CISC and RISC, you are.

Wrong again. You said:

"You can't compare previous RISC companies to x86..."

"RISC chips were virtually never in the consumer market..."

Your entire statement is predicated on a reference to CISC and RISC, and once again, was factually incorrect. RISC chips have virtually never NOT been in the consumer market.

RE: Enough hype already!
By encia on 5/31/2011 12:28:06 AM , Rating: 2
PowerPC is still being used in Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3.

RE: Enough hype already!
By SPOOFE on 5/31/2011 1:29:08 AM , Rating: 2
But... but... but those aren't PC's! How can they exist in the consumer space if they're not PC's?

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

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