Intel and ARM have been circling each other for a couple of years now, eagerly eyeing each other's respective markets as areas for growing their own businesses.
This year promises to be when the two companies begin to compete more directly against each other, when Intel can prove whether it can make an x86 chip power-efficient enough to entice manufacturers to build Intel-based smartphones and tablets that users will want to buy. Conversely, 2012 also will be the year that ARM and its manufacturing partners-such as Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, Texas Instruments and Marvell-begin pushing their chips up the stack and into such devices as notebooks and low-power servers, currently the domain of Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.
And in the middle of all this will be Microsoft, which is expected sometime in 2012 to release Windows 8, the first version of the operating system to support not only the x86 platforms from Intel and AMD, but also system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures like ARM's.
There have been bold predictions and statements from various vendors, and much speculation from others throughout the industry, in the past months about how all this could play out: Whether Intel can drive down the power consumption in its chips enough to become a player in the booming mobile device space, for example, or whether ARM and its manufacturers can enhance the performance of their chips to challenge Intel in notebooks, if ultrabooks will fare well, or ARM chips' lack of support for legacy applications will be an insurmountable hurdle.
Until now, that has just been speculation. No one can really say how this will unravel until each side starts competing more directly with the other, and that won't really start to happen until this year, according to Gartner analyst Sergis Mushell.
"No player has created a situation where I can say, -This is where it's going,'" Mushell told eWEEK in a recent interview. "It's very dynamic."
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week will be a key arena for this competition. Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini is scheduled to give a keynote Jan. 10, where he will talk about the chip maker's push into the mobile space. And throughout the show, Intel will show off upcoming smartphones, tablets and ultrabooks, all powered with Intel chips. Ultrabooks-very thin and light notebooks that offer features found in tablets-are expected to be a key technology featured during CES.
Both Samsung and LG Electronics are reportedly set to introduce smartphones powered by Intel's upcoming Atom "Medfield" processors and running Google's Android mobile operating system, a nod to the expanded partnership Intel and Google announced during the Intel Developer Forum in September 2011. Medfield will be Intel's first true SoC, with devices expected to hit the market in the first half of the year. Intel in December released photos of a prototype design of a Medfield-powered smartphone. The photos were published in MIT's Technology Review.
Also on Jan. 10, Paul Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm, a key maker of ARM-designed mobile chips, reportedly will show off upcoming notebooks powered by his company's processors. Qualcomm will spearhead ARM's push into mobile PCs and low-power servers. At the Computex show in 2011, ARM President Tudor Brown said he expects that by 2015, half of all mobile PCs-including tablets-will be powered by ARM-designed chips. In addition, ARM-based servers are on the way, though they may not ship in volume until 2015.