Intel vs ARM

The semiconductor industry: Space invaders | The Economist.

This was an interesting read about how Intel and ARM are expanding their territory into each others turf. Whereas Intel has long dominated the PC/server market, ARM has complete control over the mobile processing market. Both have shown signs of expansion and hope to take a chunk of the apple from the other.

Intel, clearly the larger company, seems to have less work to do than ARM, however breaking into the mobile market may turn out to be rather difficult given the large ecosystem ARM has created with its licensing approach rather than Intel’s complete-package selling approach. Intel “is bringing two powerful siege engines to the field: ”

  1. Its low-power Atom line of chips, which will be featured in phones at CES. Intel is working with Google to bring Android to Atom chips. They also are decreasing the width of their circuitry even more and employing 3D chip designs that shrink the chips even further.
  2. New leadership dedicated to breaking into the mobile-device market.

Michael Rayfield of NVIDIA says that “Getting processors on a technical par with ARM’s is the easier of the two hurdles. The software hurdle is staggering.” Mr Brown, Intel’s president, says “The complex reciprocal relationalships that make up ARM’ecosystem are probably our biggest barrier to entry.” Moreover, the fragmented mobile-device market requires many system-on-chip configurations, which may be a challenge to Intel, a company that has created all-in-one solutions for its entire life.

On ARM’s side, they are gearing up to invade the PC/server industry. Microsoft has already said they would work on Intel’s chips and ARM chips, cracking the “Wintel alliance” that Microsoft and Intel have shared since the beginning of the Windows operating system. Besides Microsoft’s move, they are also getting into powering servers (the key pro for them is offering a lower-power, low-energy solution). In fact in November, HP announced a project named Moonshot specifically to produce servers using ARM chips made by Calxeda. “The chips are less powerful than their Intel equivalents. But they are less thirsty and need less cooling, so whereas a standard rack (a man-high cabinet with about a cubic metre of volume) in a data centre can only house a few hundred Intel server chips, Calxeda thinks it can cram in almost 3,000.” The ARM servers would be beneficial for social media companies/web-based firms, which don’t require very complex processing. However, most server software is written for Intel’s chips, which has 64-bit support, whereas ARM has only recently come out with a 64-bit standard (no chips using it are yet available).

All-in-all, it looks as though both companies will inevitably go to war against each other, each attacking the other’s stronghold. With this war, comes a happy customer and technological competition that stirs new innovations :D.