mannerisms

Ruminations on the electronics industry from David Manners, Senior Components Editor on Electronics Weekly.

Phone Makers Would Be Daft To Use Intel Atom

 It is absurd to think that any maker of mobile phones would use an Intel processor chip. It might if Intel sold the processor as a core, but any phone manufacturer using discrete Intel processors would be an idiot.

 

One of the reasons for ARM’s success was that it sold its processors as a core, so any chip manufacturer with a license could make an ARM processor, and so there were always plenty of  processor suppliers for handset makers to choose from.

 

In 1990, when ARM was founded, the computer industry had watched in despair as Intel and Microsoft sucked 90 per cent of the profits out of  the industry by enforcing monopolies on operating systems and processors.

 

The computer makers hadn’t intended to choose processor supplier with no second sources. When Intel won the IBM PC design-in, Intel had a load of second sources: AMD, Harris, Siemens Semiconductors and NEC. So it didn’t look as if the PC industry would become dependent on a single supplier.

 

But, when Intel snuffed out its second sources through legal action, leaving only AMD, it became clear that Intel had achieved a quasi-monopolistic position in the supply of processors to the PC industry.

 

Intel became huge on the back of that position. The industry, however, made a collective vow of: ‘Never Again’. Never again must it allow a company to gain a monopoly supply position over a vital component.

 

Which is why the ARM business model appealed to the emerging mobile phone industry in the 1990s. For interoperability, software compatibility and economic viability, the mobile phone industry needed a standard processor. But no, mobile phone company wanted a chip company to get is own, proprietary, microprocessor established as the industry standard. That would only lead to another Intel situation.

 

So ARM’s business model of licensing its processors as IP cores to anyone who wanted them, exactly fitted the needs of the emerging handset makers. It meant that one microprocessor could become standard, but no single company would have a monopoly over the supply of that standard microprocessor.

 

So, to suggest now, as some are doing, that Intel has a chance of getting its Atom processors into mobile phones is daft. Daft, that is, unless Intel changes its business model and sells Atom as a core.

 

Intel can, of course, make ARM-architecture processors as a result of the architectural licence for ARM technology it acquired with its purchase of  part of DEC. That architectural licence was used by Intel to make ARM-architecture processors which Intel called  X-Scale processors. But the fact that Intel can make ARM-architecture processors that is not the issue. The issue is the business model and Intel has never marketed its processors as licensable cores..

 

Hand-set makers want a unified processor architecture with multiple suppliers. That is what they’ve got. And that is what they’d be daft to risk losing.

 

No one in the telecommunications industry wants Intel to do to it what Intel did to the PC industry.

 

You only get one chance to screw the industry.

 

 

Tags: ARM, Intel, mobile phone industry, monopolies, phone manufacturer, siemens semiconductors, software compatibility

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    May 30, 2008 08:46

    Thanks John. I just feel ARM doesn’t (yet anyway) have that mad urge to control everything which affects some US companies which start off by being very admirable and innovative, then seem to get infected by a virus which makes them want to control the industry..
    Intel and Qualcomm spring to mind.
    When ARM starts suing their customers then we’ll know they’ve caught the virus.
    Cheers
    David

  2. John
    May 30, 2008 03:28

    ARM is also monopolising the market in a way. Though they are selling their processors as core their development tools are not backward compatible and every time you try to upgrade the processor you need to use new tools which I feel is a clever strategy. Now with so many companies are getting into mobile paltform, ARM makes money.
    But I fully agree with you that Atom as a standalone processor wont suceed. Also I feel the “WinTel” (windows and Intel) can work out wonders in mobile platform too.
    BTW I’m not associated with any of the above mentioned companies.