Intel's emphasis on manufacturing means the company is fanatically focused on volume. When it costs upward of $5 billion to build a new chipmaking plant that will be obsolete in just a few years, you don't need an advanced economics degree to see that amortization is an enormous burden. Every single chip is weighed down with the crushing cost of its birthplace.
Thus, Intel is all about high-volume products -- not specialty niche products. That excludes Intel from a lot of narrow (read: emerging) markets. It also prevents the company from making special spin-off processors with unique I/O, different configurations, or application-specific features. One size has to fit all.
That $5 billion investment has its benefits, however. It pays off handsomely in terms of faster speed, smaller die size, and lower power consumption. The laws of physics apply equally to everyone, regardless of their processor architecture, and Intel's current 22nm semiconductor lithography is a full generation ahead of most everyone else's. Smaller transistors mean smaller voltage swings, shorter signal-propagation times, and less heat to dissipate. It also means smaller circuit dimensions, which means smaller die sizes, which translates into more chips per silicon wafer. And that means more chips to sell.
Intel is one of the few companies left with the financial resources to invest in state-of-the-art manufacturing R&D. Everyone else -- including all the ARM licensees -- have to make do with shared manufacturing, mainstream technology, and less-aggressive physics.
Slugging it out
Intel and ARM couldn't be more different commercially, but their respective architectures are gradually converging technologically. After all, computer scientists have been studying and simulating the best ways to design a processor for decades, and those same findings apply to everyone. ARM has grown more CISC-ified over the years, while Intel's x86 has become streamlined in other areas.
As it stands, Intel's manufacturing prowess very neatly offsets ARM's architectural advantages, at least in terms of energy efficiency. In the performance race, Intel is the undisputed leader, but that may be because ARM doesn't want to design ultrafast processors, not because it can't.
To break ARM's inertia-driven upgrade cycle and crack the mobile market, Intel needs a new product category. That may come in the form of low-cost Android handsets now being fielded by a handful of vendors. These new "starter" handsets have little to no established software ecosystem to protect; they're virgin territory, apps-wise. Android itself runs on x86 as well as ARM (or MIPS), so Intel's Bay Trail and forthcoming Cherry Trail devices might gain a toehold. An all-in-one SoC with x86 core, wireless interface, and integrated peripherals could make a good single-chip handset platform if Intel prices it aggressively enough.
At that point, history may repeat itself, as Intel sneaks up on ARM from the low end of the market. It would be an ironic twist in a long-running, high-stakes game.
This article, "Intel vs. ARM: Two titans' tangled fate," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in business technology news and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.