TI CEO: Intel's PC baggage will hurt mobile aspirations

TI CEO Rich Templeton says Intel's promises of manufacturing progress won't change ARM's domination

Texas Instruments' CEO this week took a shot at Intel, saying the company's history of making power-hungry PC chips could hurt its aspirations to compete with ARM in the handheld device market.

Despite advances in manufacturing technologies, Intel may struggle to make sub 1-watt chips that can perform under real-world conditions, said Rich Templeton, CEO of TI, during a speech at the Bernstein Research conference that was webcast. Intel may find it difficult to compete against seasoned chip makers with decades of experience making ARM-based chips, Templeton said.

ARM's processors, which go into most of the world's smartphones and tablets, are considered to be more power efficient than Intel's tablet and smartphone chips. Intel recently introduced its first Atom chips dedicated to tablets, and has already released mobile phone chips, but no Intel-inside smartphones are yet available.

"This is game, set and match on ARM-based computing in the mobile side. There's no debate left on that. I think the only one trying to make noise about that is the person that isn't on that journey at this point," Templeton said.

Intel is accelerating its move to new manufacturing technologies, and said it hopes to release chips in 2013 that are at par with ARM on power consumption. Intel also introduced 3D transistors for use in its next-generation of 22-nanometer chips, which are 37 percent faster and consume less than half the power of 2D transistors on its current 32-nm chips. Production of chips using the 22-nm process will begin later this year.

Templeton said that the argument of progress in manufacturing technology to make chips more power-efficient was also made three years ago, but the market conditions haven't changed.

"I still don't know if the true sub 1-watt world of low power is understood," Templeton said. "We've been working on low-power for 20 year coming out of the cellphone perspective. I think it really does help when you come from a 300 milliwatt voice-only cellphone world."

TI, which makes chips for smartphones, earlier this week announced a quad-core chip, the OMAP4470, which has ARM processor cores. TI's chips go into tablets such as Research in Motion's PlayBook and smartphones from companies such as Motorola and LG. In addition to Intel, TI competes with ARM-based chip makers Qualcomm, Nvidia and Samsung.

Intel is building process technology to support ultramobile products, while the chip maker's past processes have been built for speed and not power consumption, said Doug Freedman, senior semiconductor analyst at Gleacher and Co.

But ARM currently has an advantage as lot of new smartphone software is being written for ARM-based operating systems, Freedman said, adding that comparing ARM to Intel is difficult unless they are tasked with the same workloads.

"When Intel gets x86 cores running ARM-based OSes we will get the apple-to-apple compare we are looking for. We are finally starting to see Intel accept that change is required to win in the ultra-mobile space and they are redesigning the PC to look more handset-like," Freedman said.

Templeton said TI will continue to develop OMAP as an applications processor, rather than an integrated communications processor with a baseband radio. Many chip makers, including Intel and Nvidia, have been snapping up baseband processor companies with the aim to integrate them into chips. Nvidia in May bought baseband company Icera and Intel acquired Infineon's wireless business, saying it would integrate 3G and 4G communications radios in future Atom chips.

Not all applications need baseband chips, Templeton said. Many phones carry separate baseband and application processors, and smartphone operating systems such as Google's Android and Apple's iOS are evolving mainly under the application processor.

"There's no confusion about what business we are in. We're very attentive to the application processor and how to design it very well for these applications," Templeton said.

Separating the OMAP and baseband processors also provides flexibility to device and chip makers, Templeton said.

"Our OEM customers are going to prefer 'Let me select a processor, put my software investment on that and then let me have two or three baseband guys'," Templeton said.

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