Intel Compares ARM to Transmeta, Via: Chipmakers Come and Go, the Strongest Wins

Intel Believes in the Power of Native x86 and Innovations

by Anton Shilov
10/25/2012 | 05:06 PM

Intel Corp. is facing one of the most important strategic inflection points and is about to enter one of the most crucial battles in its history. But is the company ready? Inte believes it is.


It has been a rather busy year for Intel, which has finally managed to release commercially viable x86 processors for smartphones and who is about to enjoy the launch of Windows 8 operating system, which will open the tablet market’s doors to Intel’s chips. However, in the world of new Windows, Intel will have to compete against long-time rival ARM face-to-face. But Intel does not seem to be too worried about it.

Intel’s x86 microprocessors and application processors based on ARM architecture have co-existed for decades on different markets inside completely different devices and just ten years ago Intel itself manufactured Xscale processors on ARM architecture for personal digital assistants and other ultra-portable electronics. The x86 architecture has always been tailored for compatibility and performance, whereas ARM concentrated on creating the most power efficient designs, which it licensed to others to use inside variety of products. But something changed several years ago: Intel dropped Xscale and started to develop ultra low-power x86 micro-architecture, whereas ARM started to pay more attention on raw performance. The clash between the two was inevitable.

But even after Intel released several generations of x86 Atom microprocessors and system-on-chips, while ARM introduced high-performance Cortex-A cores, there was no direct competition between x86 and ARM architectures as the two ran different operating systems on different devices. With the launch of new Windows, everything is going to change as ARM is now supported by Microsoft as well as x86.

Starting this Friday, there will be Windows 8 tablets with Intel or AMD chips inside and Windows RT tablets with SoCs on ARM architecture. Slates with Windows 8/x86 will run virtually all the applications ever developed with Windows and x86 as well as Metro apps, whereas slates featuring Windows RT/ARM will only be compatible with Metro apps and specially designed software. Although the latter will be less expensive and will offer better battery life compared to x86 rivals, Intel claims that compatibility matters a lot.

“Intel-based Windows 8 machines will run all the software and Web sites written for past versions of Windows. That will not be as true on the RT [devices]. I am not sure that iTunes runs. I am not sure that Quicken runs,” said Paul Otellini, chief executive officer of Intel, in an interview with AllThingsD web-site.

As the new Windows evolves, more and more applications will be ARM-compatible and it is inevitable that Intel will be competing for performance, responsiveness, battery life and price against ARM partners, such as Applied Micro, Marvell, Nvidia, Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm and many others. In fact, Intel will compete not only for tablets, but also for notebooks and even servers.

The world’s largest chipmaker seems confident in the outcome. Chief executive of the company compares ARM partners to companies like Transmeta (which designed ULP x86-compatible chips, but eventually went bankrupt) or Via Technologies (which offered low-power low-cost chips, but also failed to gain market share) and reckons that Intel's CPUs are the best and are getting better quicker than everything else.

“I happen to be around long enough to remember those guys. People come and go, and we have never had an exclusive, if you will. And, overall, the best chip has won,” stressed Mr. Otellini.