This week brought a little controversy to the love triangle that comprise rivals/partners Intel, ARM and Microsoft. Earlier this week Intel CEO Paul Otellini revealed intentions to enter the mobile sector. Intel's Renee James later indicated that Microsoft is currently developing four versions of Windows 8: one for x86 and three for ARM-based SoCs. James even pointed out that the x86 version will include a Windows 7 mode and compatibility for legacy software. The ARM-based versions will not.
Microsoft immediately blasted Intel for the comments, calling them factually inaccurate and misleading. "From the first demonstrations of Windows on SoC, we have been clear about our goals and have emphasized that we are at the technology demonstration stage," the company said without addressing specific Intel statements. "As such, we have no further details or information at this time."
Now ARM's mobile strategist James Bruce has come out of the woodwork saying that the mobile market is more complex that what Intel is accustomed to. In fact, the x86 chip maker has an uphill battle in the road ahead, especially in a market seemingly assimilated by ARM thanks to its 95-percent dominance in both cell phone and smartphone sectors. That doesn't even include tablets.
Right now ARM doesn't consider Intel as a threat. Bruce pointed out that currently there are no smartphones shipping with the Atom processor. "I'm sure there are going to be handsets shipping at some point in the future with Atom processors," he acknowledged. "To be honest, from our perspective, proof is really very much in production."
Over the past few days, analysts have reported that Intel will probably unveil new mobile x86 chips within the next 12 to 18 months. But Bruce said that there's more to entering the mobile market than merely producing a powerful yet efficient processor. It's not like the PC arena where Intel dominates over rivals AMD and VIA. Intel will be up against an entire ecosystem established by ARM's architecture and licensing, essentially taking on Apple, Samsung, Nvidia and Qualcomm.
"Obviously, when you have a company like Intel saying it's going to focus on your market, you're going to take notice," he said. "The key thing to emphasize is that this is not an Intel vs. ARM battle but Intel vs. the ARM ecosystem. The mobile market is not just about one chip going into multiple handsets but about multiple pieces required for multiple handset designs."
"The key thing to keep in mind is that the mobile market is not a monolithic market with one solution fits all," he added.. "ARM's partners are delivering many different chips at many different price points and capabilities that allow the ARM ecosystem to address the entire mobile market...."
Intel will have a hard time entering the market, he said. It's not about selling processors. It's about selling a near-completed cell phone on one chip, one containing the CPU, GPU, memory, video codecs, 3G/4G radio and more.
Of course, ARM is now heading into the PC and server sectors, with Nvidia already signed on to lease the architecture for PC chips. But as with Intel and its struggles to get a foothold in the mobile sector, ARM too may face the same uphill battle entering Intel's home territory. That said, this may be a good time to prime up the recliner and pop a bowl of popcorn to watch the heavyweights duke it out in style.