Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor company, suffers from a Freudian case of appendage envy. The appendage is an ARM.
Simply put, smartphones (and other mobile consumer-electronics gizmos) are the next PCs, and Intel wants them to run on Intel x86 processors. Right now, your mobile phone, MP3 player, or digicam probably has a custom chip with a microprocessor core licensed from ARM. Although most people have never heard of ARM, it makes the most popular 32-bit microprocessor architecture in the world.
Yet ARM doesn’t make a single chip. It licenses its 23 different processor cores to other companies that design and make chips. These chips are very different from most of Intel’s. They are system-on-chip (SoC) devices—highly integrated chips that surround the processor core with built-in peripherals, memory, I/O interfaces, and application-specific logic.
Intel knows it needs SoCs to conquer mobile electronics. Using separate chips is too costly, burns too much power, and requires too much space. Although Intel makes a few SoCs, it’s impractical for one company—even one as large as Intel—to make a different SoC for every gadget.
ARM is much smaller than Intel. But ARM’s strength is its global army of licensees, who make an awesome variety of SoCs. Intel fears to license the x86 in the same way. The last time Intel licensed the x86 architecture was in the 1980s—to AMD.
Intel’s latest solution? Offer to design Atom-based SoCs for makers of smartphones and other small systems, then use Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest independent chip manufacturer, to fabricate the chips. Intel will provide design specs and custom logic. TSMC can provide the integrated peripherals, memory, and interfaces. Presto! An x86 SoC.
This arrangement isn’t as flexible as ARM’s licensing, but it’s a big step for a company as paranoid as Intel. The big question is whether having an x86 instead of an ARM processor in a mobile device matters to anyone but Intel and ARM. In netbooks, it matters—because netbooks are PCs, and most people want Windows. In an iPhone, who cares? I think Intel will have trouble muscling in on ARM.
Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report.