In 2009, about 90 percent of the netbooks, smartbooks and other ultra-mobile devices were powered by x86 processors, particularly from Intel.
However, analyst firm ABI Research is predicting that percentage will change dramatically over the next few years, with systems based on ARM chip designs outselling their x86-based counterparts by 2013.
In report released Jan. 21, ABI analyst Jeff Orr said that "2010 will be pivotal for building momentum behind non-x86 solutions, gaining adoption in both distribution channels and by en-user populations worldwide."
In 2010, ABI is projecting about a 75-25 split, with Intel leading. However, the changeover in leadership will begin in 2013, and the ratio by 2014 will be about 60-40 in favor of ARM-based devices.
With the netbook market entering its second generation and other ultra-mobile devices seeing an increase in sales, users are looking for looking for a more "always connected" experience, for which ARM-based products have a reputation.
In addition, Orr said, ARM-based products are coming being used in a growing variety of devices, such as tablets.
ARM officials are pushing their designs into new areas. ARM-based products already are the dominant processor technology in such devices as smartphones, a position being challenged by Intel and its Atom chips. Intel is developing a 32-nanometer version of Atom that will officials say will offer better leakage control than current versions that and will offer capabilities found in ARM-based products.
Intel also is establishing an Atom developer program to further expand the reach of the technology.
In October 2009, ARM officials unveiled their Cortex-A5 MPCore processor, which will be cheaper, faster and more energy efficient than its predecessors and will be aimed at a range of Internet-enabled devices, including netbooks and embedded consumer and industrial systems, as well as smartphones.
ABI's Orr also said another growing trend toward ARM dominance revolves around the rising demand for sufficient network capacity and the difficulty some mobile operators have in meeting that demand. While many see users of such devices as Apple's iPhone as the major source of the demand, Orr disagreed, calling that idea a "distraction."
"In general, laptops and netbooks with embedded or attached modems contribute a significantly greater amount of traffic to 3G networks than smartphones do," he said.
The question of whether ARM-based products will overtake x86-based devices has been up for debate for about a year. In March 2009, Robert Castellano, an analyst with The Information Network, said that netbooks powered by ARM's Cortex-A9 and running Linux will overtake x86-based ultra-mobile systems by 2012.
However, IDC analysts said around the same time that non-x86-based systems wouldn't gain more than 10 to 20 percent of the market, with one analyst saying that systems makers would be wary of angering Intel by using too many products from another company.