When you consider how many mobile platforms ARM powers—Android, BlackBerry, iOS, webOS, and Windows Phone 7—you wouldn’t think that Intel, with its traditional x86 architecture, has a distinct advantage when it comes to software. But Kircos says his company has the upper hand, especially among manufacturers who will be producing both Android and Windows 7 tablets. “I think the benefit of having the world’s most popular instruction set architecture—probably hundreds of thousands, millions of developers understanding it—outweighs the small tax issues people are bringing up.” He also added that Flash works particularly well on x86, while ARM-based devices have struggled with the technology.
If you ask Nvidia, the graphics inside its ARM-based Tegra 2 chip handle Flash just fine, both on tablets and phones. “The typical things that people do on a laptop, which includes a lot of web browsing and often watching Flash content on the web, they actually get a much better user experience with a modest CPU and a really good GPU [rather] than the other way around,” said Dally. He argues that x86 is just dead weight at this point because it’s too expensive from an energy perspective.
Kircos counters that if Nvidia could have a low-power x86 chip in the market today they would, but would never admit it. But do they really need it? An intriguing turning point for developers will come with the next generation of Windows, which Microsoft demonstrated at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. The OS was running on both Intel’s system on a chip (exact name not disclosed) and ARM-based processors from Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.
This is a scary position for Intel to be in, but it also presents a huge opportunity. “If we stick to our road map, I’m confident that we’ll have a great chip,” Kircos said. “I’m really excited about the 4 billion ARM chips that ship per year and how Intel and Microsoft can go and steal share there.”
And what if consumers don’t care about the next version of Windows? In light of that possibility, Intel is supporting multiple operating systems, including not only Android but MeeGo, an OS the chipmaker has been collaborating on with Nokia.
However, MeeGo lost serious steam recently when Nokia announced that Windows Phone would be its premier smart phone platform. When Nokia CEO Stephen Elop phoned Intel CEO Paul Otellini to share this news, Otellini admitted that he cursed.