Ask most people who or what was responsible for invigorating the smartphone market, and they would almost certainly say Apple or Steve Jobs. And indeed, it was that company’s iPhone that made a consumer phenomenon of what had previously been a niche device.
But the unsung hero of the transformation is the humble microprocessor. Today’s smartphones support functionality equivalent to desktop PCs from only a few years ago, and this is testament to the performance and energy efficiency of contemporary mobile chips.
Intel, a company synonymous with the processor business, has not been the principal beneficiary of the smartphone boom. Its Atom range of mobile chips has barely made a dent in the smartphone market.
The spoils have instead gone to Britain’s ARM Holdings, a company spun out of Acorn Computers. ARM Holdings, which licenses chip designs to component makers including Samsung and Texas Instruments rather than making them itself, claims that over 90% of all mobile devices contain at least one processor that it has designed.
Clearly, this represents a missed opportunity for Intel – and it knows it. “I wish I had been smart enough to start it seven years ago because we’d be in a good position today,” Intel CEO Paul Otellini said of his company’s smartphone effort at a New York conference in early October. “But I wasn’t.”
The company is now making up for lost time, says Charles Golvin, a Forrester Research analyst. “From the perspective of growth opportunities for Intel, this is pretty near the top of the list.” It claims that the next Atom release – code-named ‘Moorestown’ – will support unprecedented application performance on smartphones and tablet devices when it is released next year.
But in mobile microchips, high performance isn’t everything. The finite supply of battery power means that energy efficiency is a key differentiator. ARM Holdings says its chip designs offer better power performance thanks to their simplified instruction set (the basic library of commands that the chips are capable of carrying out).
“The ARM architecture was designed from its inception to be a very low-powered instruction set,” says Laurence Bryant, marketing director at the chip designer. The latest iteration of its flagship Cortex series, which it announced in September 2010, promises to “dramatically” improve power management once more.
However, Forrester analyst Golvin insists that Intel’s formidable research and development resources should in time allow it to catch up with ARM on this front. “Intel has tremendously deep knowledge and skill in chip design – it’s not as if energy efficiency is something they’ve suddenly woken up to,” he asserts. “They’re putting a lot of design resources and effort into improving that aspect of their designs.”
Meanwhile, Intel’s recent acquisition of German chipmaker Infineon’s wireless unit could help it to tempt handset manufacturers away from the ARM architecture, Golvin suggests.
Infineon’s technology will eventually allow Intel to integrate 4G connectivity standards at the chip level. “Having an integrated solution that ties together processor and modem – that’s really the aim of the Infineon acquisition,” explains Golvin. “It’s to bring all the radio components into a complete design, rather than just supplying a processor to a [device manufacturer] that then has to build the rest of it themselves.”
However, Intel’s plan to use Infineon to bolster its mobile market share took a knock in September, when it was reported that Apple will no longer be using Infineon chips in the iPhone.
ARM, meanwhile, insists that the fact that it licenses its designs to a number of third-party chip manufacturers means that its architecture is more appealing to device makers than Intel’s, as they have an eco-system of component suppliers to choose from. This is indeed a strong card in ARM Holdings’ hand, says Forrester’s Golvin. “Irrespective of industry, nobody likes to be single sourced,” he says. “You need competitive supply.”
Of course, the typical end-user doesn’t know, much less care, which microprocessor their smartphone uses. They are naturally more concerned with the user experience and the breadth of applications available.
But while Intel’s continued bid to crack the market may go unnoticed by users, it could still benefit them by accelerating innovation. “The fact that there is a big, scary, looming competitor ready to take market share away from ARM is a good spur for innovation,” Golvin concludes. “That competition will result in better experiences.”