ARM vs. Atom: The battle for the next digital frontier

Small, inexpensive, power-efficient new chips from Intel and ARM are enabling the new wave of mobile devices -- and setting the two companies on a collision course

Intel: A babe in the woods? If Intel has misjudged the market, however, its emphasis on Windows and x86 architecture could backfire.

Not so long ago, Upside magazine hailed a company called Transmeta as "the most important company in Silicon Valley." Its product sounded remarkably similar to Atom. Transmeta CPUs used advanced, proprietary technology to execute the x86 instruction set in a way that consumed much less power than traditional Intel desktop and laptop chips.

When the first Transmeta chips began appearing in consumer laptops, however, they were a disappointment. Transmeta-powered laptops weren't much smaller or lighter than standard ones, but their performance was perceptibly worse.

The netbook category didn't exist at that time, and battery technology was less advanced than it is today. To the gigahertz-obsessed buying public, the minutes that Transmeta's technology added to their battery life simply weren't worth sacrificing performance.

The situation is similar today, only now consumers demand both speed and power savings. Who cares if a chip uses x86 architecture, so long as it has enough juice to decode high-definition video and won't drain the battery before the movie ends?

Atom's performance is good, but Intel has yet to demonstrate a model with power characteristics comparable to those of the current generation of ARM chips.

Meanwhile, ARM recently demonstrated a version of its Cortex A9 processor running at 2GHz, proving that ARM chips can scale to handle high-performance applications. And a forthcoming ARM product promises to consume one-third as much power as current offerings.

Given numbers like those, Intel's talk about a universal x86 architecture could end up falling on deaf ears -- especially since there's no shortage of ARM programmers in the embedded market.

Let the chips fall where they may Ultimately, as is so often the case when large companies enter new markets, Intel's real best weapon is its deep pockets. Atom doesn't have to be an overnight success in the device market, as long as Intel can prop it up with sales from its lucrative PC and server lines.

But deep pockets won't matter if Intel can't make its Atom business profitable in the long term. While ARM has made its home in the embedded market for years, Intel has grown accustomed to businesses with higher margins. Intel may find it lacks the nerve for the battle to come.

According to sources, each Atom CPU retails for around a tenth of the price of one of Intel's Penryn chips for standard laptops. As ARM makes its chips ever faster and more versatile, Intel will be pressured to follow suit with Atom. But the more powerful Atom becomes, the more Atom sales will cannibalize sales of Intel's higher-margin traditional chips -- leading some analysts to wonder whether this is really a market where a company with Intel's business model can succeed.

But then, it's not as if Intel has a choice. The rise of netbooks, the decline of desktop PCs, the green IT movement, and the smartphone explosion all point to a sea change in computing. Intel can embrace the shift, but it can't stop it.

For ARM and its many partners, however, the world of Intel's future must seem like a very familiar place.

This story, "ARM vs. Atom: The battle for the next digital frontier," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in ARM and Atom, as well as netbooks and mobile technologies, at InfoWorld.com.

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