ARM: Heretic in the church of Intel, Moore's Law

Rival flouts rule to seize the day with cheaper chips for a growing netbook market

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New era, new Intel

With the market having shifted decisively last year from desktop to portable PCs, PC makers are looking for the same characteristics. Intel's successful Atom chips boast some impressively-low wattage ratings. But Drew, who spent 14 years at Intel before joining ARM in 2005, said ARM is still "better" on energy.

"We're not going to do an 'Intel Inside' brand," said Drew, because it would interfere with "our partnership model."

"We'd like to be more known," he continued, but the reality is "you're talking to a VP of marketing with very little marketing budget."

What about coining a green-minded version of Moore's Law? "We won't have something like Warren East's Law," named after ARM's CEO, said Drew. "We're quite a boring British company."

Besides netbooks, ARM has even talked about taking on Intel in the PC server market with its energy-efficient chips.

"Progress is being made," Drew said, adding that ARM chips, despite their lack of power, may be more efficient than multicore CPUs when measured by metrics such as "CO2 per Web page hit."

What could stall ARM in both the server and netbook markets is the lack of full Windows compatibility. Windows Mobile and many embedded versions of Windows do run on ARM chips. But they lack access to the many desktop applications available for Windows XP or the upcoming Windows 7.

Although Drew would welcome it, Microsoft Corp. has made no commitment to porting a full version of Windows to ARM. "Windows Mobile is a great OS with some great features," he said. "But does it run the full PC experience? Aren't there still a few missing tricks?"

Philip Solis, an analyst at ABI Research, agreed. "The market is moving too quickly for Microsoft," he said. "I know there is demand to see Windows ported over to ARM."

One concern about such a port of Windows would is whether an all-new platform optimized for tiny devices might lead to a compromised user experience. Drew scoffs, "Just because it's difficult to do, doesn't mean you shouldn't evaluate it."

Intel isn't standing still. Last month, it agreed to give Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. access to its Atom technology. But Drew said it was a "manufacturing, not a sales" relationship with a single partner, unlike the arrangements that ARM has. "It's not as wide as us," Drew said.

Moves are afoot in many corners, it seems. Last month, a Motley Fool blogger suggested that Apple might drop the ARM processor in the next version of the iPhone, either for the next version of Intel's Atom, codenamed Moorestown, or if Apple build its own chip using the technology from its acquisition of low-power chip maker P.A. Semi Inc. last year.

Should the report be taken seriously? "You'll have to ask Apple on that one," Drew said.

Clarification This article was changed from when it was originaly to clarify that the the ARM7TDMI chip first shipped in the mid-1990s. The 2006 version of the chip is the one used in modern devices such as the iPod and the Nintendo DS.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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