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ARM takes on Intel in mobile Internet space

Posted: 18 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile Internet? ARM processor IP? Intel microprocessor?

Processor IP licensor ARM Holdings plc has been running a project for 18 months with select partners to try and define a product category to sit in the gap between the smart phone and the portable computer.

"We started the Connected Mobile Computing Project 18 months ago and the more we talked the more companies wanted to get involved," said Ian Drew, segment marketing VP for ARM. Drew declined to name the individual companies that are involved in the project.

But as yet it is not clear exactly what sort of devices the project is going to foster. "We're talking about what comes after the Nokia N95. We're talking about screen sizes in the 5- to 6-inch space," said Drew. The Nokia N95's screen measures 2.6-inch diagonally. Most of importantly, Drew reckons it will be about making the Internet available while users are moving about.

Smart phone or cut-down laptop?
But will that product category stick with consumers and will it be a super smart phone or a cut-down laptop computer? If the former then there is a chance it could be powered by ARM-based microprocessors; if the later then Intel Corp. could end up specifying the product category and the processor hardware.

A microprocessor codenamed Silverthorne, which Intel plans to ship next year, is targeted at ultralow-cost PCs. It is reckoned it will offer adequate but not barnstorming performance and low power consumption, characteristics that are important for mobile Internet devices.

Silverthorne will include Intel's "system on a chip," which integrates several key system components into a single Intel architecture-based processor. Silverthorne will be part of Menlow, Intel's next-generation platform for mobile Internet devices and ultramobile PCs and the proposed shipment date has been moved up to the first half of next year from late in 2008.

"There are not very many products out there, so it's hard to say which way it will go," said Drew. "We see it [the product category] as a grown up smart phone. We certainly think our experience of more than 10 years power-saving in mobile phones is relevant; it's what allows a variety of products."

It is remarkable that Psion, sort of supported by ARM, had a go at introducing an ultramobile PC in the form of the Psion Series 7 back in October 1999. Based on a StrongARM processor running the Epoc OS, the Series 7 was an instant-on machine with a good keyboard and 7.7-inch 640-by-480-pixel display. The Psion Series 7 wasn't a success in the marketplace, which instead turned to sub-notebooks running Windows. And more recent "tablet"-style ultramobile PCs don't seem to have caught the public's imagination either.

But it is also true that a financially powerful company such as Intel is in a position to define a standard architecture, garner support from OEMs and white-box builders and have a chance of making a product category "stick" with the buying public.

"There is a business philosophy difference. ARM has 100 to 200 partners in our ecosystem and we allow them to build with our IP. Intel sets out a standard. But really its about how the differences are manifested to end customers, power-performance, the software stack, in a form-factor that people like."

The whole package
Drew is convinced that it is not going to be about a single processor or a single OS as such debates have hinged on in the past. "It's about making the Internet experience mobile, about adding phone service, GPS, about Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, about 18-25 year olds. It's about the browser and the plug-ins. It's about getting the whole package right."

To illustrate the point that the connected mobile device will not be held in thrall by any one OS, Drew listed Symbian, Linux and Windows Mobile as all being significant in the smart phone space.

"There's nothing in an architecture that lets a processor run the Internet better," Drew said. "It's about how you package it all together, with graphics and audio drivers, and so on." But Drew is convinced that ARM makes it easy for its partners to do that. So what processor cores does he say the ARM ecosystem adopting for connected mobile devices?

"The ARM11 and the Cortex A8; they've got the performance to meet all this." Drew added that if you were aiming at a 2009 introduction you might use the Cortex A8, but if you need a fast track to market in 2008 the ARM11 might be a safer bet.

"The iPhone is a lot of the way there. But this category is still at a nebulous stage. And it's not going to be us that defines it. It is going to be the 18-25 year olds that are early adopter."

Could Europe's recent resurgence in display technology, creating novel prototypes of non-volatile and scrollable screens, play a part? "In five years time: maybe. Over the next couple of years: probably not," said Drew.

It is noticeable that over the last 10 to 15 years ARM's successes have come largely where the equipment concerned is predominantly not tethered to the wall!in mobile phones!and Intel's successes have come where the equipment is tethered most of the time!in laptop, desktop and server computers.

With the Intel Developer Forum coming up this week and the ARM Developers' Conferences programmed for Oct. 2 to 4, the battle lines are drawn to fight over the mobile Internet.

- Peter Clarke
EE Times Europe

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