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ARM: Intel has tough road into mobile market

ARM exec says mobile market more complex than Intel is used to

Intel may have made a big splash this week announcing it's going to focus on the mobile market, but its rival in the space says the chip maker has an uphill climb ahead of it.

James Bruce, lead mobile strategist for ARM Limited, said in an interview that this isn't the first time Intel has said it's setting its sights on the mobile market. So for now, he's not too worried about Intel's plans.

"I think the mobile market is incredibly exciting," said Bruce. "I'd be more surprised if companies did not want to play in the mobile market.... If you look historically, they've been talking about the mobile market for quite some time now. There's been a lot of talk, but I'm waiting very much to see a device ship."

During Intel's financial analyst meeting on Monday, CEO Paul Otellini said he is refocusing the company , moving its "center" from PC processors to chips for the burgeoning mobile market. That means Intel will be trying to get a footing in a lucrative market that encompasses smartphones, tablets and netbooks.

It also means Intel is putting its considerable might and financial muscle to battle ARM chips , which dominate the mobile market.

Actually, dominate might be an understatement.

According to Bruce, ARM chips make up a whopping 95% of the cell phone and smartphone market. If you add tablets like Apple's iPad 2 into the mix, ARM would still hold about the same percentage of the mobile market, he added.

"At the moment, there are no smartphones shipping with the Atom processor," said Bruce. "Looking at handsets today, [Intel] is not a competitor because there's nothing shipping with it."

Intel would like to change that, though. And analysts have said over the past several days that they suspect Intel will be unveiling new mobile chips within a year to 18 months.

Bruce said that what matters is seeing something go into production. "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."

And there's more to grabbing a chunk of the market than just producing a powerful, yet efficient processor, Bruce said. The mobile field is far more complicated than the PC arena Intel has dominated.

"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."

Unlike Intel, which designs and manufacturers its own chips, ARM Limited licenses the ARM chip architecture to manufacturers. Many different vendors, including Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm, make ARM chips.

Instead of one company, it's a community.

And while analysts say there can be some bickering and sniping inside that ARM community, Bruce said there's a big advantage in having a broad ecosystem.

"The key thing to keep in mind is that the mobile market is not a monolithic market with one solution fits all," he said. "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...."

He also said he doesn't see how Intel can handle the entire smartphone market from a $70 price point to a $500 price point.

"This is a complex market," Bruce added. "This market isn't about selling processors, but about selling almost a complete mobile phone on one chip - graphics, processor, video and the 3G or 4G modem. It's not going to be easy for Intel to come in to this market."

If the competition between the ARM ecosystem and Intel seems heated now, it's only go to grow more so as ARM Limited looks to move into the PC and server space.

Bruce noted that Nvidia already has licensed the ARM architecture for PC chips, and he expects to see ARM chips moving into the server market in the next three years.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.


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