ARM Holdings already dominates the smartphone and tablet chip spaces, and has said it plans to cut into Intel's significant server market share. Now, it could become a player on the PC scene, according to market research firm IDC.
In a report issued May 5, IDC said that by 2015, ARM would hold 13 percent of the PC chip market, an area in which the company doesn't register right now. According to IDC figures, Intel in the first quarter held 80.8 percent of the market, followed by Advanced Micro Devices with 18.9 percent and Via Technologies with 0.2 percent.
However, things are changing in the industry that could boost ARM in the space. Microsoft has said its next version of Windows will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architectures, in particular, chips made by the likes of Samsung, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments based on ARM designs. Having that support from Microsoft, by far the largest PC operating system vendor, could cause ARM's PC profile to rise.
In addition, given the prevalence of ARM chips in the burgeoning tablet space, users for consistency purposes may be interested in getting a PC that has the same chip architecture as their tablets. With ARM-based PCs running Windows, that idea could become more plausible.
Intel and ARM are increasingly on a collision course, as both are looking to muscle into the other's domain. Intel executives have been candid about their intention to extend their x86 architecture into the tablet and smartphone markets. The chip giant in April unveiled its Atom Z670 "Oak Trail" processor, which offers greater performance and lower power consumption than current Atom chips. Intel officials expect at least 35 system designs based on Oak Trail to start hitting the market this month.
On May 4, Intel unveiled a new transistor technonology-dubbed "Tri-Gate"-that executives say will lead to significant performance and power-saving gains, starting with the first of its 22-nanometer "Ivy Bridge" chips, which should begin appearing in servers and PCs early next year. The new transistor architecture moves away from the traditional flat "planar" design and offers a three-dimensional structure that will continue to drive Moore's Law over the next two years, at least through the 14-nm processors.
Intel officials see the new technology at play in chips that will find their way into a variety of systems, from servers and PCs to tablets, smartphones and embedded devices. The Tri-Gate design not only will further fuel Intel's mobile ambitions, but it will also help it ward off competition from ARM and its partners, who are looking to drive the ARM architecture into the data center with low-power servers.
Forrester Research analyst Richard Fichera noted the tightening competition between Intel and ARM in a May 4 blog post talking about the Tri-Gate transistors.
"Another theme that came through loud and clear was Intel's focus on low-power devices, SoC designs and pre-empting competition from ARM-based and similar low-power microprocessor products, which while they may not be a reality yet in the server space, have been an inhibiting factor in Intel's success in low-power devices, with the exception of Atom-based netbooks," Fichera wrote.
In an interview with Bloomberg News in December 2010, ARM CEO Warren East said he expects ARM-based processors to begin chipping away at Intel's dominance in the data center by 2014, fueled by the growth of such technologies as virtualization and cloud computing and the need of many businesses to drive down data center power costs.
Such chip manufacturers as Marvell and Calxeda are working on server chips based on ARM designs. In addition, ARM in September 2010 unveiled the Cortex-A15 design, which officials said would help drive the architecture into the data center. Systems with Cortex-A15-based chips could begin hitting the market in late 2012 or early 2013.
The Cortex-A15 design will have features that many systems makers find attractive, including support for virtualization, greater memory capacity, five times the performance in a power envelope similar to current ARM designs, up to 2.5GHz in speed, and as many as 16 cores.
Such features also will be important in PC chips. In the meantime, Intel and AMD continue to hold the bulk of the PC chip market, thanks in large part to the new platforms each introduced earlier this year-"Sandy Bridge" for Intel and Fusion for AMD.
"Both Intel and AMD grew unit shipments sequentially, which indicates some decent strength in their new platforms," IDC analyst Shane Rau said in a statement. "Due to the first full quarter shipping their Sandy Bridge and Fusion microprocessors with integrated graphics processors, processors with IGP grew to slightly over 50 percent of market shipments for the first time."
IDC expects 2011 PC chip shipments to grow 10.3 percent over last year's level.
"Generally, the demand environment for the second half of this year looks decent. The earthquake and tsunami had minor effects on the PC supply chain," Rau said. "However, the real near- to mid-term concern there is the effect on Japanese demand for PCs, and so microprocessors."