If you've ever struggled through a skiing lesson, you know exactly what the expression "too far over your skis" means: You're headed in the right direction, but you're leaning so far forward you're going to take a tumble. And that's what's going to happen to my colleague Galen Gruman, who along with other pundits is falling all over himself to bury Intel under the oncoming ARM tsunami.
Yes, as many of us have written, the old PC-centric computing model is running out of gas as tablets and smartphone become more powerful and more central to how we live, work, and play. That's the right direction. But timing is everything -- there's lots of evidence that Wintel (the Microsoft-Intel partnership) still has many years left in it -- which is why Gruman and others are seriously ahead of themselves.
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This is a big topic, so I'm going to stick to one part of it: Intel's ability to compete with ARM in delivering high-performance, low-power chips in packages tailored for mobile devices. One name to keep in mind in this discussion is Zolo, the Android-based smartphone from Lava now selling in India.
"People who have seen it say that it is comparable in performance to [smartphones based on] Qualcomm's Snapdragon and Nvidia's Tegra," the ones used in practically every Android smartphone sold in the United States, says Nathan Brookwood, the principal analyst of Insight64 and a longtime observer of the semiconductor industry. The smartphone's energy efficiency is likewise comparable to these established ARM chips -- except Zolo uses Intel's x86-based Atom chip. That's why counting Intel out, Brookwood says, is a big mistake.
Intel versus Qualcomm and Nvidia: An uneven match
The chip inside Lava's Zolo is based on Intel's new Medfield design. Without getting overly geeky, it's important to note that the chip used in the Zolo is still being produced on the old 32-nanometer process. A year from now, Intel will shift its mobile chips to the same 22-nanometer process used in the just-shipped Ivy Bridge laptop and desktop chips.
Why is that important? The smaller process means far more transistors and far less heat. If Intel is competitive at 32 nanometers, what happens when it shifts to a more aggressive process?
It's also important to remember that Intel owns its own fabs and controls its own process technology, while its competitors generally use foundries owned by companies like TSMC that do not have the same mastery of process technology, notes Brookwood. Don't forget the addition of trigate, or 3D, transistor technology to increase both computational power and efficiency.
That's not to say Nvidia and Qualcomm won't be improving their own ARM chips. Ditto for Apple, which designs its own ARM chips for its iOS devices. Of course they will, Brookwood says. But now that Intel has decided to focus on performance per watt, as opposed to pure computational performance, it's a very different ball game.
A pair of announcements during last September's Intel Developer Forum demonstrated Intel's power in the mobile industry. Intel CEO Paul Otellini and Google's Android development boss Andy Rubin appeared on stage together, and Rubin promised, "We're going to collaborate very closely to make sure that Android is optimized the best it possibly can be for the Intel architecture."
He added, "Going forward, all future releases of Android will be optimized [for Intel]."