As I watched Intel CEO Paul Otellini at CES 2012 announce that both Motorola and Lenovo would be shipping x86 Android smartphones, just one question echoed around my skull: So what? Reading throughthe details of Medfield, the SoC that that provides the foundation for Intel’s smartphone push, the same question began to reverberate.
So far, so good — but to actually answer the question of why Medfield matters we have to zoom out from the technical details and look at the bigger picture. The biggest announcement yesterday wasn’t Medfield — it was that Motorola has signed an extensive “multi-year, multi-device strategic partnership” with Intel to produce Android-powered smartphones and tablets. We might not know the exact details of how Intel’s x86 smartphone platform compares with ARM, but Motorola does. For months, Motorola will have been privy to the exact specs of Medfield, including the all-important power consumption figures. For months, Motorola will have been studying the architecture of Medfield, analyzing its pros and cons, building prototypes, and seeing how it compares to the ARM SoCs it currently uses. In short, if Motorola didn’t think that Medfield was competitive, it wouldn’t have agreed to make a bunch of Medfield-powered phones and tablets.
In six months, then, the smartphone industry will go from being completely dominated by a single architecture to a competitive, two-horse race.
To understand how significant this is, you need to understand how constrained smartphone and tablet makers currently are. Except for Qualcomm, which makes its own ARM-compatible cores, every other ARM chip on the market uses reference CPU cores (Cortex-A9, -A15, -A7) from ARM Holdings, a fabless UK company that licenses out chip designs. TI, Samsung, and Nvidia simply take these cores and dress them up differently to produce OMAP, Exynos, and Tegra. Actual performance and power consumption varies very little between chips, with the only real difference being additional features like built-in LTE radio, or a faster GPU — or in the case of Apple’s A4/5/6 SoCs, the removal of a few unnecessary features to reduce its power footprint.
With a bona fide x86 smartphone SoC on the market, everything changes. Competition will drive prices down. If you thought smartphones were developing quickly, be prepared for even more new features from both ARM and Intel as they strive to differentiate. Consumers, for the first time ever, will actually have a choice — just like AMD and Intel on the desktop, you will be able to pick a smartphone or tablet with a CPU that best suits your needs.
Most importantly, though, ARM must be painfully aware that Intel has matched the latest and greatest Cortex-A9 with its first ever attempt at a real SoC, and at 32nm no less. While competition from Samsung and Qualcomm are pushing out with limited supplies of 32/28nm chips, Intel has already announced that it will be shrinking its ultra-low-power Atom chips to 22nm in 2013 and 14nm in 2014. Say what you like about ARM chips being inherently more efficient, but the shift to 22nm and 14nm will mean that Intel’s ULV chips simply cannot be beaten. ARM can innovate until its blue in the face, but at the end of the day it will be impossible to compete with Intel’s far superior manufacturing process — and heck, on top of all that, it’s not like Intel doesn’t know how to make a good CPU.
In short, ARM & Co. are in a very unenviable position. Intel now has a beachhead and its terrifying, industry-clobbering, 60%-gross-margin wehrmacht will surely follow. You might only see a few Medfield-powered scouts in 2012, but by the time the 22nm Silvermont tanks roll around in 2013 and x86 is better than ARM across the board, expect to see dozens of Santa Clara design wins. Unless TSMC, IBM, GloFo, or Samsung uncover some kind of ancient scroll that details the magic of 14nm, come 2014 and the Airmont core, I wouldn’t be surprised if Intel completely dominates the Android smartphone market. Following the Motorola partnership, I would also be very surprised if Microsoft and Apple aren’t working on x86 versions of their mobile operating systems, too.