Shrinking The CPU Platform: Intel Goes After SoC Opportunity


Santa Clara (CA) - Your business model as chip manufacturer is fairly simple: You need to sell as many chips as possible and hopefully you will sell more every year. Intel’s recent introduction of the Atom processor was seen as the most critical step in decades to enable the company to sell more chips and today’s announcement is a logical follow-up: Intel combines its processor architecture with other computing components under one roof and will soon be able to market its products to virtually any product that requires a processor - including cellphones.

Intel announced its first eight system-on-chip (SoC) products under its Intel EP80579 Integrated Processor family for security, storage, communications, and industrial robotics and noted that it is currently working on at least 15 SoC projects planned internally, including the company’s first Consumer Electronics (CE) chip codenamed "Canmore" scheduled for introduction later this year and the second-generation "Sodaville" next year.

While these chips are likely to be silently integrated into products that are unlikely to reveal that they are running Intel processors (we assume at this point that these SoCs in fact will launch and will make it into one or the other product), probably the most interesting SoC will be the Atom-based (according to Intel, "many" SoCs will be based on the Atom processor core) Moorestown SoC, now also known as "Lincroft": This SoC will is expected to become Intel’s first serious attempt to get some traction in the smartphone market.

Some readers may remember Intel’s XScale processors, an architecture that was sold to Marvell two years ago, which was used in some early smartphones and PDAs, but never grew into a serious contender of the cellphone market. The Lincroft SoC will be Atom-based and integrate a complete chipset, including graphics capabilities and yes, a memory controller. Given its release time frame of 2009/2010, Lincroft is likely to be a 32 nm chip and much smaller than the 45 nm Atom and its 130 nm SCH chipset. The huge chipset is the key reason why Intel’s Atom processor can’t fit into smartphones.

We know that Intel has been watching the iPhone space with much interest and it should come as no surprise if Intel will be advertising Lincroft to Apple, despite Apple’s recent purchase of processor developer PA Semi. Intel’s advantage may be its production technology and its advantage in architecture research: The company claims that the new Lincroft platform will consume ten times less power in idle state than a comparable platform today. Interestingly, Intel today admits that the Atom platform is too power hungry to be used in cellphones. But a 10x reduction in power may be enough to make the technology a serious contender.

However, Intel will be marketing this new technology to other markets as well, most notably embedded applications. Especially for this space, the company is pitching a technology called "QuickAssist", which includes accelerators for security processing and software for security and VoIP. Intel claims that a fully equipped SoC will consume between 11 and 21 watts at clock speeds between 600 MHz and 1.2 GHz. The total footprint will shrink by about 45% from 206 cm2 to 110 cm2.

Intel has a history of losing its focus occasionally and jumping on new opportunities much too quickly. Seven years ago, for example, the company began building consumer electronics such as a microscope for the teenage bedroom and a MP3 player. Virtually all of these projects were flops and were scrapped since the company did not know how to market them. The SoC line makes much more sense and may offer a true opportunity for long-term expansion.

We just don’t believe that companies such as Texas Instruments, Freescale and ARM will be standing still. It should be interesting to see how this environment will develop.