Intel may have a fight unseating ARM chips

Analysts say ARM is in a position of power, entrenched in mobile

With the world's biggest chip maker focusing in on the mobile market, there's a lot more pressure on the ARM chip community.

But fear not. Industry analysts say ARM is in a great position to withstand any Intel onslaught.

On Tuesday, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, speaking at the company's financial analyst meeting, announced he is refocusing the company, moving its "center" from PC processors to chips for the burgeoning mobile market. That means Intel will be trying to break into the elusive, yet lucrative, mobile market that encompasses smartphones, tablets and netbooks.

It also means that Intel has focused its crosshairs directly on ARM chips, which heavily dominate the mobile landscape. To get a piece of that market means taking it away from an ARM chip.

While ARM companies may be looking over their shoulders at the competition coming their way in the next year or so, it shouldn't be causing any panic, says Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

"It's going to be almost impossible to [unseat ARM chips]," said Enderle. "ARM is entrenched. There's a high level of difficulty going after an entrenched vendor. Look at how hard it's been to go after Intel in the PC market. ARM is entrenched in cell phones and tablets, and once they're that in place, it's hard to work around that."

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT, echoed Enderle, noting that the ARM community has positioned itself very well to take on a big challenge - even from a Fortune 100 company with very deep pockets.

"Like any entrenched technology, ARM has a solid position and the high ground in many markets," added King. "Entrenched competitors are among the hardest to counter, let alone beat."

King, though, noted that this doesn't mean ARM chips and the companies behind them are invincible. "I hesitate to say that any technology has too much of a head start to be caught or beaten," he said. "So far as ARM is concerned, most all of its markets are growing rapidl, but many are also highly immature. Both circumstances translate into competitive opportunities.

"So long as Intel delivers effective, affordable, innovative technologies, they should be able to attract some OEM customers and partners," King added.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, though, thinks Intel has a good shot at gaining mobile chip market share, regardless of how well entrenched ARM chips are.

"It potentially does spell trouble for ARM. It appears they now have Intel's full and undivided attention," said Olds. "If Intel sets its mind to it and throws everything into an effort to build a chip that can compete with or be better than ARM on power and performance issues, they can do this. They have the ability. The question is can they do it at a price they'd be happy with?"

However, Enderle noted that it will take more than a better chip for intel to succeed.

"They would have to displace the entire ecosystem, which now evolves around ARM," he explained. "That's massively expensive. When you've got an entrenched vendor, you need to spend 10 times what the vendor is spending. If you can't do that, you might as well go home. And 10 times what the collective ARM community is spending is a lot of money."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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