Mobile: Intel Will Overtake Qualcomm In Three Years

The Prestige

So, on one hand, you have PowerVR with its proven track record in Intel, Apple, and TI chips, and Qualcomm with its access to legends of the Finnish demo scene.

Only that’s the thing: Most of the key team from BitBoys left Qualcomm a year ago to start SIRU Innovations Oy.

SIRU Innovations Oy is a start-up that has been running in stealth mode for the past year. It claims to be developing a licensable low-power graphics IP core. You’ve probably never even heard of SIRU, which goes to show you the difference between technology journalists who like to follow companies and talk about the organization's expertise and those who follow the human talent.

SIRU’s team is still flying low enough under the radar to the point where we don’t know who all of the members are. But brothers Mika and Kaj Tuomi are co-founders, along with Mikko Alho. Mikko, SIRU’s CEO, was the graphics processor hardware project manager for Qualcomm Finland. Importantly, although Mikko is in a management position, keeping things on-track with project planning, resourcing, design definition, day-to-day project leading, and project status reporting, he was doing the block design for BitBoys in the 90s, including the C- and RTL-model implementation. That means SIRU’s management is run by an engineer and not just a suit. Jarkko Makivaara, Qualcomm Finland’s former director of engineering, is also with SIRU. Jari Komppa, a senior engineer with Qualcomm Finland, is now with SIRU. He is a demo legend, winning first place at the Text Mode Demo Competition XI, first innovation, second theme in ludum dare 48 game design contest #4, second place at the Assembly99 3d-accelerated demo competition, first place at the Assembly98 demo competition, and first place at the Assembly96 demo competition. There are other engineers at SIRU as well, all from BitBoys.

So, the top graphics engineers who joined Qualcomm in 2009 and have almost a decade of experience working on mobile graphics haven’t been contributing exclusively to Qualcomm for roughly a year.

Remember that PowerVR’s missteps came from a lack of engineers able to anticipate the needs of software developers and users. That’s not a problem with SIRU, built with a cadre of demo coders, as well as former programmers from Fathammer, a game development studio.

Additionally, we all know that graphics hardware is only as good as its supporting software driver. Updated GPU drivers for the Adreno 205 were responsible for an almost-50% performance improvement. And that’s where the final piece of the puzzle comes together. The team at SIRU is filled with engineers who are legends and wizards with x86 technology, whose expertise in the early 90s with single-core, in-order execution CPUs remain unmatched. Do you think it’s still unusual that the Atom and Near Threshold Voltage Concept are built around the Pentium?

Can the Qualcomm Finland software team extract enough performance from the hardware, even in the absence of many of contributing members of the Adreno GPU team? 

Oh wait; a lot of those guys are gone, too.

Marko Laiho, BitBoys’ chief software architect and a director of engineering with Qualcomm Finland left half a year ago to start another stealth start-up, Vire Labs.Joining him is Joonas Torkelli, the BitBoys product manager for handheld IP, who was the graphics software lead in Finland for Qualcomm, Jani Huhtanen, a senior staff engineer with Qualcomm with expertise in GPU drivers and 2D/3D graphics algorithms, and Jusso Heikkila as the Vire Labs’s lead Android developer.They even have Kari Malmber as their creative director, a graphic designer who was with the BitBoys team and most recently worked at Qualcomm Finland on 3D material for demos and designing mobile phone user interfaces.

With the exodus of several important players, there is no question that Qualcomm's graphics division was dealt a big blow. Human talent that was once exclusive to Qualcomm is now found in two stealth start-ups that clearly intend to license their technology to as many customers as possible.

Closing Thoughts

There are exactly zero shipping Intel-based smartphones today. Qualcomm brought in $4.12 billion of revenue in Q4’ 2011. But things will change over the next three years the same way things changed for Kodak.

You have Qualcomm, which faces challenges on the manufacturing side due to gambling on gate-first high-k and now being forced to go with standard silicon, challenges on the CPU engineering side as it moves to a true out-of-order execution design, and challenges on the GPU side from losing a substantial amount of exclusive talent.

Then, you have Intel, which dominates manufacturing, has demonstrated a competitive 32 nm product before even tapping into out-of-order CPU designs, and the freedom to choose between PowerVR’s graphics technology, whatever emerges from SIRU, or perhaps even a future design derived from its own engineers.

I'm calling it right here: three years from now, Intel will overtake Qualcomm in the MSoC business. Discuss.

  • DjEaZy
    Intel Will Overtake Qualcomm In Three Years, If Qualcomm sits on hiz balls and do noothing.
  • Tamz_msc
    Three years ago, Internet Explorer was the industry’s dominant Web browser. Today, Google Chrome is in the lead.
    Putting this sentence aside, its an interesting article.
  • kjm15213
    There seems to be a lot of speculation in the article and some assumptions that people apparently only buy what is to be considered the best technology? For one, if intel has the stigma of not having the ability to manage the power threshold, how hard are they going to have to fight to change that for consumers to buy their product? How well is windows phone doing to fight their stigmas? Secondly, the markets where the phones are sold are important and I have seen other articles break them down more regionally. I have read, and may be wrong, that the initial medfield phones are motorola and lenovo designs for Chinese consumers. If this is the limited market for adoption, they may sell volume, but it might not be a global volume. Another thing is how low is intel to go for return on their price for chips verses, will it be more cost effective for them to really ramp up on the cloud/platform support side for all of these new devices to come online. This may provide more ROI and atoms might not be worth the cost and marketing effort. I honestly think they have a problem as hardware becomes good enough for a decent experience and software needing less processing power, intels X86 processes are less useful for the everyday user and the added cost to a chip. I don't think that it is due to their inability to create a great product, but the need for them to be there if the margins are small and there is no significant performance/experience advantages (I could see them benefit in tablets, but not as much as phones...but that could be my bias...), they might not pay a premium if they expect that. I think as devices become more convergent, there is a desire for any large company to enter into that field and hope to get a piece, but it really may be an ill fit for the company at large.

    Finally, I would say I did not like these global claims that intel has never failed in fab as I think they have been delayed for a bit on their last process or always demonstrated great platforms (since the original atoms I would not consider great to use for running windows...). I like intel and own their stock so I hope they do well, but I think they face more of an uphill battle that you see. I don't think that people did not think they would come into the market at a somewhat competitive place in analysis, but I really feel they are a disconnected fit (and this could just be me...) to this market. I have read money market people say that they will have a harder time entering into the smartphone market with ARMS market share expanding greatly in the next 3 years. I like the idea of the pairing with motorola for their chips because I think that will a) tie them to android (as I think meego is dead...) b) may let them offer solution akin to what the Atrix ideal could have been. Overall, an interesting article about future challenges with FAB/Design
  • this article suggest that intel is holding back in its mobile design, b/c it views the competition to be insignificant. Thus if intel can make a SOC designed from the simplest archeticture, in-order pentium, they can spit out yearly updates of newer pentiums up to the current sandy bridge-like mobile cpu without much worry. they basically have half a decade in design spec'ed out. and if any of the competitors happen to hit all marks and make a good chip, intel can skip a generation to leap frog them.
  • You don't look at the economic aspect at all (Intel can't afford to sell cheap,low margins chips) and you just assume the traditional CPU core ,GPU (GPU wise,anyone can license PowerVR,Intel has no advantage and other major players can always block Intel from buying Imagination) and wireless are the parts that will matter most.
    You look at just Intel and Qualcomm,ignoring players that are more than capable to compete.
    You also assume that performance is the most important aspect when in the end the reality is that CPUs are getting cheaper,a lot cheaper and those cheap chips will keep gaining market share while Intel can't match those prices without getting crippled. Servers and a growing market will help Intel for a while but at some point the funds available for R&D and fabs will start to shrink.(BTW my post,unlike this article,is not sponsored by anyone.)
  • What other parts of ARM ecosystem will do during those 3 years? They are already competing with Qualcomm quite heavily. And besides Qualcomm there is another ARM architecture license player: Marvell.

    Also (and more importantly) will the software help Intel in the same way as during the Wintel dominance? Microsoft itself has planned Windows 8 for less resource requirements than Windows 7 has now. Will there any need be for "above the ARM level" of performance in the coming years?

    Also (and even more importantly) how Intel will cope with the mounting pressure on its chip prices? If Intel will not be able to held those prices high enough it could fast loose the revenue it is getting now.

    In other words: during those three years Intel's ware may become a commodity where only price or Price/performance what is counting. Even now, as noted in today's news by Digitimes:
    "TSMC seeing 3G chip orders boom, sources say
    Qualcomm, MediaTek and Broadcom have all introduced their more integrated single-chip solutions targeted at the market for low-priced 3G smartphones in China. Each of the new chips - manufactured using 40nm and below node technologies - accounts for less than US$10 of total component cost a model would carry, the sources pointed out."

    How Intel will compete with that, not in 3 years, but in 2012? Than in 2013? And finally in 2014?

    So, given all that above I could subscribe to your prophecy at all!
  • dragonsqrrl
    Has anyone taken a look at the early performance previews of Medfield? It looks very promising, and contrary to popular belief power consumption seems to be in line with modern SOC's based on dual-core Cortex A9's.
  • RazorBurn
    I am more interested with the BitBoys guys and its new start-ups with Siru and Vire Labs.. During the 90's, I was amazed of how this 4k and 64k demos do such things with such low file-size.. These guys are such Geniuses..
  • de5_Roy
    interesting article. very enjoyable read, especially the bitboys history.
    though at the end of the article, christian bale didn't have a twin.
  • Tomtompiper
    "To that end, the future of MSoCs will depend on, first, SoC architecture, second, fabrication skill, and third, graphics technology."

    The most important piece of the Jigsaw is missing, power consumption. But you would expect thaf from somebody fixated on performance. Intel will struggle to make X86 work in anything other than tablets and High end handsets, it will have a tiny niche in three years, if it is lucky. And with MS opening up Windows they will lose share in thin clients and laptops.