CES dispatches: ARM exec challenges Intel to ditch x86, make ARM chips

ARM, the designers of the chip architecture that dominates smartphones and tablets, has a message for Intel: Come and join us.

Despite years of effort, Intel has made little headway in getting smartphone and tablet makers to embrace its line of x86 chips for mobile devices. As a result, some pundits have called on the company to ditch the effort and embrace ARM’s technology.

In a meeting I had with him here in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, James Bruce, ARM’s lead mobile strategist, declined to comment on whether that notion might soon become a possibility. But he cheered the idea.

Noting that Intel is reputed to have the best fabrication plants in the world, Bruce said that “surely they should put the best processor on it;” meaning, of course, an ARM-based one.

In our conversation, Bruce touted ARM’s success and dismissed any notion that Intel is making any headway in the marketplace. Some 7.9 billion (yes, with a “B”) ARM-based chips were shipped inside of various devices last year, more than half of them going into mobile phones and tablets. Now, only a portion of those chips were the high-powered application processors that Intel is trying to compete against; included in the number of chips shipped in smartphones includes those used in their wireless radios, in their touchscreen controls and other functions. But the company clearly dominates the smartphone market.

By contrast, according to Bruce, some estimates place Intel’s share of the market at about 0.2 percent. While that’s greater market share than the company had a year ago, it’s obviously still a very small drop in the bucket of the overall market. And, as Bruce noted, the money Intel is seeing from those chips almost certainly isn’t making up for all the money it’s invested in the effort.

While Intel is still struggling to get into the mobile business, ARM continues to set its sights further afield. ARM chips already have dominant positions in the smart TV and digital camera markets. And the company is seeing chips based on its technology show up in devices ranging from the Pebble smart watch to Parrot’s AR Drone.

But the company is focused particularly on computing. This past year saw the release of the first ARM-based Windows computers and the first ARM-based computers running Google’s Chrome OS. While the ARM-flavored version of Windows — dubbed Windows RT — has seen tepid support from manufacturers and has been criticized for being a hobbled version of the operating system, Bruce said it’s too early to evaluate the effort. The first Android phones saw limited sales, and it took two years or so for the software to really start taking off with consumers, he noted.

“What you’ve got to look at is how they grow the ecosystem over the next year or so,” he said.

But ARM’s computing efforts may come full circle back to its mobile phones. Two years ago, Motorola released the Atrix smartphone, which switched to a desktop-like interface when you plugged it into a notebook or desktop dock. Motorola later abandoned the effort, but it may be coming back as the chips become more powerful.

In the next year or so, according to Bruce, the ARM chip in your smartphone will have sufficient power to run full desktop applications, meaning that the only computer you may need may be the one in your pocket. Helping with that effort is ARM’s “big.little” technology, in which a system on a chip includes both high-powered cores for processor-intensive tasks and highly efficient ones that can run everyday functions without using much power. In the future, your phone might switch on the high-powered processors when you plug it into a wall socket, allowing you to do the type of computing tasks you’d typically do on a desktop today.

“We’re literally on the cusp of that,” he said.

Something more for Intel to worry about.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (264 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.