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.

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller

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