From mainframes to minicomputers and then PCs, 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’s why the PC industry’s commanding chip maker, Intel Corp., might do well to be alarmed by the computer chips being designed by Qualcomm Inc., a maker of chips for cellphones. An engineer at Qualcomm’s gleaming corporate campus in San Diego demonstrated a palm-sized 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 commonplace. 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.
Michael Rayfield of Nvidia with a Tegra computer, which has a chip based on an ARM design ( Peter DaSilva /NYT)
As the PC shrinks in size, it is on a collision course with the multifunction cellphone. Many expect the resulting impact 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 excelled—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 three decades.
Other chip-makers have not ignored power consumption. Just this month at Computex, a huge computer and consumer electronics trade show held each year 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 Holdings. ARM has had a big impact on the communications world. Its processors sell for substantially less than Intel’s more powerful X86 chips and are far more numerous.
Dominating the large and growing cellphone market is only half the battle. Both the X86 and ARM camps are eagerly eyeing a new market known within the consumer electronics 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 shrunken laptops called netbooks, personal GPS navigators and hand-held game systems, as well as an expanding array of idiosyncratic gadgets that connect wirelessly to the Internet for every conceivable purpose. For example, at Computex, one company displayed a hand-held device intended solely for people looking to carpool.
Anand Chandrasekhar, a vice-president and manager of Intel’s mobile platforms group, says he expects portable computers to be much like bicycles. Not only will people use different ones for different applications—like road bikes and mountain bikes—they will also outgrow them. “As a child, I had a bike for my size, and as I grew, it changed," he said.
This 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. Even though Intel’s chip uses more power than those of its ARM competitors, Atom represents a tenfold reduction in the power consumption of the X86 chip family that was used in several generations of desktop PCs. Intel’s engineers achieved the power savings in part by entirely rethinking the chip’s circuit design, as well as the way individual transistors work.
One addition to the new Atom chip is the so-called drowsy transistor, a circuit that can throttle the amount of power it consumes between each tick of the processor’s clock. When the chip is not computing, entire areas of the processor can go into a sleep state, using just enough power to remember the ones and zeros for the current process.
Intel executives say the company’s advantage is the quality of the Web experience provided by its chips. ARM manufacturers respond by saying that their chips will provide a Web experience that rivals Intel’s but also allows significantly longer battery life.
Analysts and industry executives are divided on how much of a threat ARM will be to Intel. Allies such as Dell are unlikely to desert the chip-maker. “We’re impressed with their road map," Michael Dell, chief executive of Dell, wrote in an email message. He said it “gets interesting for smaller devices with Moorestown”, referring to the next generation of Intel’s low-power chips, planned for 2010. Dell, like Hewlett-Packard and other major PC makers, is bringing out its own mobile Internet device.
Other analysts see Moorestown as an indication of the challenge Intel faces, for the company will not be directly competitive with the ARM processors on power efficiency until then. “You’re still going to have a higher-power solution with Intel’s Atom that doesn’t have the same small footprint of the ARM chip,” said Jim McGregor, a research director at In-Stat, a semiconductor market research firm. “It won’t be a great solution for mobile devices, and ARM will.”
©2008/The New York Times
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