By John Markoff
From mainframes to minicomputers and then personal computers, each new computing generation has displaced its predecessor by reaching a broader audience and costing far less. And each time, the dominant company in one generation loses control in the next.
That is why the PC industry’s commanding chip maker, Intel, might do well to be alarmed by the computer chips being designed by Qualcomm, a maker of chips for cellphones.
An engineer at Qualcomm’s gleaming corporate campus here demonstrated a palm-size circuit board capable of displaying high- definition video. What was striking about the demonstration was not the quality of the video images, which is now common. Rather it was that the microprocessor chip, called Snapdragon, drives the display with less than half the power of a similar chip recently introduced by Intel. Qualcomm designers say it will also cost less.
As the PC shrinks in size, it is on a collision course with the multifunction cellphone. Many expect the resulting effect to transform both devices and all the companies that make them. The new smartphones, always-on portable Internet devices that are part cellphone, part computer, change the rules of the game in computing because computing speed – at which Intel excels – is no longer the most important factor. For a cellphone relying on a small battery, how efficiently a chip uses power becomes more important.
The new mobile world represents a special challenge for Intel, which until four years ago ignored the issue of increasing power consumption in its flagship X86 chips, which have been the PC industry standard for almost 30 years.
Other chip makers have not ignored power consumption. Just last month at Computex, an electronics trade show in Taiwan, the Silicon Valley graphics chip maker Nvidia demonstrated a small mobile computer that worked five times as long on a battery as a similar portable machine powered by Intel’s most recent low-power chip.
Qualcomm and Nvidia share a chip design licensed from a relatively tiny British chip firm, ARM. ARM has had a big effect on the communications world. Its processors sell for substantially less than Intel’s more powerful X86 chips and are far more numerous: They are standard for the cellphone industry. Cellphones outsell PCs by about five to one.
“This battle is being fought in ARM’s backyard, not Intel’s,” said Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia’s mobile group.
In addition to Qualcomm and Nvidia, there are over 200 licensees of the ARM processor design, including Marvell and Texas Instruments. Together, they supply the more than 1.1 billion cellphones, many of which use multiple ARM chips.
The chips are also used in a growing array of consumer electronics like GPS navigators and set-top TV boxes.
Dominating the large and growing cellphone market is only half the battle. Both the X86 and ARM camps are watching a new market known within the industry as MIDs, or mobile Internet devices. They are betting that this year represents the beginning of a boom in a new class of computing device – things like small laptops called netbooks, personal GPS navigators and handheld game systems, as well as an expanding array of idiosyncratic gadgets that connect wirelessly to the Internet for every conceivable purpose.
Outside the United States, the less expensive MID computers are expected to expand penetration of computers into new markets. In the United States and Europe, however, there is a debate about whether the new machines will remain in a niche category.
Anand Chandrasekhar, a vice president and manager of Intel’s mobile platforms group, said he expected portable computers to be much like bicycles. Not only will people use different ones for different applications – like road bikes and mountain bikes – but they will also outgrow them “As a child, I had a bike for my size, and as I grew, my bike changed,” he said.
Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, is now well aware of the threat from ARM. It is focusing vast resources on the low-power microprocessor market and says it is catching up quickly in power efficiency with its ARM competitors. Last month , the first netbooks using a new Intel chip, the Atom, began to be shipped. Intel says more than 30 products will use the Atom.
Intel executives said the company’s advantage was the quality of the Web experience provided by its chips. “By definition, these devices have to run the Internet as it has been developed,” said Chandrasekhar of Intel. “That happens today on X86,” he said, adding that seamless access to the Internet “won’t happen on ARM.”