Nalini Muppala

Analysis, observations, perspectives on mobile space

Intel vs. ARM: Licensees

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ARM licensees comprise big and small IC vendors. They can be broadly classified into two groups: those that build around ARM cores and those that develop their own CPU implementation compliant to ARM instruction set architecture. The former group covers implementation licensees such as TI, Broadcom, and NXP, just to name a few, and foundry licensees. The latter comprises architecture licensees such as Marvell and Qualcomm. The architecture licensees need a lot of expertise and can bring in their know-how to differentiate on performance.

It would be a daunting task to go through all the ARM ecosystem partners and their offerings in markets that Intel is vying to get into. Let us look at a few examples to illustrate.

Qualcomm acquired AMD’s graphics and multimedia assets. Although it has been less than a year since then, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line of system-on-chips (SoCs) is showing a lot of promise. Qualcomm recently demonstrated Adobe Flash 10 on an ARM-based netbook and took the fight directly to Intel’s turf. The approach is similar to Intel’s offering integrated graphics on PineView Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line has a lot of in-house know-how.

Ironically Marvell, whose application processor efforts went into overdrive after the company acquired Intel’s Xscale division, will be one of the least affected firms if Intel were to some how get its hands on ARM. Marvell bequeathed RIM as a customer along with Intel’s Xscale division and gained increased brand recognition. Marvell has successfully taken its application processors to several markets and recently announced a fleet of SoCs called ARMADA. These processors target a variety of markets ranging from e-book readers to smartphones to personal navigation devices (PNDs) to TVs — all markets Intel would love to conquer. Marvell is known to have invested heavily in developing a strong team of about 1,000 employees to work on ARM instruction set compatible processors. This team is said to rival ARM’s own in its engineering know-how.

TI’s OMAP line of SoCs has been very successful. Many of the best-selling smartphones are powered by OMAP, which is a major triumph for ARM.

Before ARM announced the availability of 2GHz capable high-speed hard macro implementation of the Cortex A9 (Osprey) and declared it an Atom competitor, Samsung collaborated with Intrinsity to take Cortex A8 beyond 1 GHz at the 45nm process. The ARM ecosystem is thus moving into Intel’s territory of higher processing power.

Competition for Intel’s embedded hopes comes from several quarters. It is a multi-horse race — an unfamiliar ground for the chipmaker.

In tomorrow’s concluding post, we will look at the prospects of an Intel takeover of ARM and the consequences of such a move.

A copy of this article also appeared at Sramana Mitra on Strategy.

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Written by Nalini Kumar Muppala

December 3, 2009 at 7:48 am

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