Intel’s a company which we all know. There’s a good chance that your old PC or laptop is running on an Intel chip, but the same probably can’t be said about your smartphone or tablet. Many say that the company simply missed the boat with mobile computing, and it’s certainly true that the company is languishing quite far behind.
Intel commanded about a 6% share of the mobile market back in 2011, and only held about 7% come the end of 2012. The company isn’t even worth as much as Qualcomm any more, all due to a poor showing in the mobile market.
But with a change of management at the very top, what can Intel do to turn its fortunes around?
Intel Atom vs ARM Cortex
There’s no doubt that ARM has managed to pretty much corner the mobile market and is the main obstacle for Intel. Virtually all of the big processor names in the mobile world are using ARM Cortex designs or architecture licenses in their SoCs, including Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, and the list goes on. Intel, on the other hand, has been battling away on its own in a corner of the market, picking up support in the occasional piece of hardware. But the Atom lineup of processors have failed to make their mark, especially when it comes to smartphones.
One reason for this is Intel’s business model. The company operates as a design and manufacturing business, churning out its own chips to put in products. ARM, on the other hand, operates as a licensing business, leasing out its technology to other design and manufacturing companies. This allows chip manufacturers to target the tech specifically at smartphones or tablets, whilst Intel is left trying to single-handedly sell chips in the desktop, laptop, smartphone, and tablet markets.
In fact, virtually every chip design company licenses out its technology. Graphics giants AMD and Nvidia both license their reference designs to other manufactures, who then can pick components, add coolers, etc., to improve the design, or make them slightly cheaper for a budget oriented price range. Intel even does this with AMD for its x86 desktop processors, so why not apply the same logic to the mobile space?
There’s a lot to be said for specialization, and you can’t help but feel that Intel may have bitten off a little more than it can chew. Perhaps Intel would be better served by adopting a business model more inline with that of ARM, where other manufacturers can take its designs and adapt them to their needs.
Price Point vs Performance
I’m not going to delve into technical specifics here, but it’s sufficient to say that there are many different architectural design decisions which can be made when it comes to processors, each with their own performance and cost limitations. A rather long running argument centers around reduced instruction set computing (RISC) versus complex instruction set computing (CISC), which, simply put, is a trade-off between cheaper, low-power, small transistor count processors versus more traditional computer processors.
This initial design decision gave ARM a huge advantage when it came to price, power consumption, and heat output when designing chips for small mobile devices like smartphones. Intel, instead, has been working on bringing power consumption down with smaller die sizes and production advances like tri-gate transistors.
Whilst the aforementioned technology will help Intel compete on performance, heat, and power requirements, it also needs to be priced competitively, which has traditionally been a stumbling block for Intel. Yields will need to be high to keep the price down, but the 22 nm tri-gate Silvermont microarchitecture will be Intel’s best chance so far at competing in the mobile space, at least as far as architecture goes.
Having said that, Intel does appear to have taken the importance of price onboard, what with the $200 Android laptops confirmed to be heading our way at some point this year. Whether or not these products can compete with slightly cheaper priced tablets remains to be seen, but at least we know that Intel’s chips are designed for typically priced products.