The Intel-ARM Core War

Evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould coined a fabulous term – “non-overlapping magisteria” – to describe his belief that science and religion occupy two separate and distinct domains. As a recent Economist story points out, the same might be said of the giants of the chip industry, at least until a few years ago.

On one side, there is monolithic Intel, which holds sway over most of the PC market with its high performance chips. And on the other, there is ARM, which has parlayed a low-power chip architecture and a flourishing ecosystem of licensees into near-complete dominance of the mobile market (more than 95 percent, the Economist notes).

Alas, the whole idea of distinct domains is outdated. Intel has become one of ARM’s biggest customers. And each company is intent of making inroads into the others’ market. Intel has its eyes of entering the mobile market with its low-power Atom chips. And ARM and its licensees are in turn taking aim at Intel’s bread and butter – chips for personal computers and data servers.

If the latest announcements are anything to go by, 2012 will blur whatever remains of the boundary between the two competitors. Here’s the rundown of recent incursions along the low-power/high-performance line:

Intel Serves Up Ultrabooks

In the hopes of pushing back at the growth of ARM-dominated tablets like Apple’s iPad, Intel last year unveiled a brand of slim, low-power laptops. The first Ultrabooks, as Intel called them, emerged in late 2011, but, according to a recent story in the Register, consumers haven’t been biting. Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa cited a lack of “understanding and awareness” of the PCs and as well as a price premium.

HP Declares Its Intentions

In November, 2011, Hewlett-Packard, one of the leaders in the global server market, announced it will begin building servers that incorporate ARM chips in 2012. HP said it will also be looking into constructing servers with Intel’s Atom chips and chips from AMD. But it will likely first sell servers bearing 32-bit chips from Austin, Texas-based start-up Calxeda, which is partly owned by ARM. Karl Freund, Calxeda’s vice president of marketing, told Wired the company’s servers will be considerably cheaper and use one-tenth the energy and one-twelfth the space, largely by cutting down on the room needed for cooling.

ARM Takes the 64-bit Plunge

The server market has shifted from 32-bit to 64-bit chips, made by the likes of Intel and AMD. In October 2011, ARM announced the company had devised a 64-bit architecture of its own, opening up an opportunity for other chipmakers to compete. Applied Micro Circuits has already declared it hopes to make a dent in the server market with the release of the X-Gene, a processor based on the ARM design.

Intel Scores Mobile Design Wins

At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Intel announced it had scored design wins with Motorola and Lenovo, the company’s first successes in the mobile space. Lenovo and Motorola both plan to release phones in 2012 that incorporate Intel’s 32-nanometer Medfield Atom chips. After several fits and starts, “Intel is seriously in the game,” says SemiWiki blogger Paul McLellan. The Android operating system, which both the Lenovo and Motorola phones will use, it a boon to Intel, McLellan says, because Android is relatively hardware agnostic.

Qualcomm takes aim at PCs

Coming full circle back to the Ultrabook, Qualcomm also announced this week at CES that it is talking to PC makers about building computers with the company’s ARM-based Snapdragon chips.

To sum up, it’s getting messy out there, and it’s only going to get messier. The magisteria are no more. I expect this will only be a good thing for the marketplace, but it's anyone's guess how things will shake out in the coming year.

(Image: Intel)

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