Qualcomm awakens and hopes to crush Intel at its own game

With PC and server chips, Qualcomm is now the chip giant that Intel used to be

Qualcomm Centriq 2400

Last Wednesday was historic for Qualcomm. In one day, the company jumped beyond its comfort zone of mobile chips and entered the PC and server markets.

With the expansion, Qualcomm now has chips for most computing products. It wants to outcompete even Intel, which dominates in PCs and servers but gave up on markets like smartphone CPUs earlier this year.

Qualcomm on Wednesday announced its Centriq 2400 server chips, which started shipping to test customers. Later that day, Microsoft revealed that first PCs based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chip would come next year. The chip will also be used in high-end smartphones.

In some ways, Qualcomm and Intel are heading in the opposite direction. Qualcomm has grown and is now what Intel used to be -- a chipmaker dabbling in all the major computing products, from wearables to servers.

Intel, on the other hand, has left some markets after tough lessons learned through unabated chip expansion and throwing billions of dollars at products that ultimately failed. This year it downsized and cut unprofitable products like mobile processors -- a market Qualcomm leads -- to focus on growth areas like IoT, data centers, and machine learning.

Qualcomm's goal of joining the PC and server markets is clear: to challenge Intel's areas of strength. But trying to unseat an incumbent is easier said than done, and Qualcomm faces many challenges of its own. The jury is still out on whether Qualcomm will succeed, but the company is the first legitimate competitor to Intel in the server, PC, and IoT chip markets.

Qualcomm's first jab at the PC market was doomed with the failure of Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 for ARM-based tablets and PCs. But the re-entry into PCs with Windows 10 is better organized, and the ARM-based Snapdragon 835 will be able to run popular Win32 apps that typically run on x86 chips. Qualcomm's chips could pave the way for Windows 10 into the 5G era, an area where Intel is at a competitive disadvantage.

But it won't be easy for Qualcomm, which faces compatibility challenges with 64-bit applications, drivers, and peripherals. The Snapdragon 835 will run x86 apps through emulation, which limits hardware acceleration.

In the last two decades, only AMD has threatened to Intel's lead in PCs, but even that didn't last too long. AMD is mounting a new challenge with its upcoming Zen processors, and Qualcomm's ARM-based chips could take on Intel's Celeron, Pentium, and Core i3 chips in low-end PCs.

Qualcomm has no plans to give up on PCs anytime soon. The company's success with cellular PCs could take off when deployments for 5G -- which combines long- and short-distance wireless communications -- take shape in 2020. Qualcomm has already introduced the Snapdragon X50 5G modem, but it's not yet known if the Snapdragon 835 will have an integrated 5G chipset.

It's a different competitive landscape in servers, despite analysts calling Centriq 2400 the best ARM server chip to date. Intel dominates servers with Xeon chips, and companies won't easily change over from x86 to ARM because it would require wholesale changes in the hardware and software infrastructures.

Moreover, ARM servers haven't caught on despite being around for more than three years. Qualcomm could rekindle some interest in ARM servers with Centriq 2400, which has 48-cores and high levels of I/O and networking interface integration.

Qualcomm has said it will take a wait-and-watch approach with server chips. The goal is to avoid mistakes made by other ARM server makers like Calxeda, which folded, and AMD, which is re-focusing on x86 after putting ARM on the back burner. Other ARM server chipmakers Cavium and AppliedMicro are struggling.

The server chip is targeted at large cloud server installations, and Qualcomm is working with a few unnamed customers. If cloud companies believe custom software and Qualcomm chips will cost less than Intel Xeon chips, they may switch over. The competition could also provide bargaining power to Intel's server customers, who could acquire chips at cheaper prices.

But a few server installations won't be enough to dent Intel's server dominance. Qualcomm will also compete with IBM's Power9, which is aiming for a double-digit market share in servers by 2020.

The market for ARM chips has also declined with applications like machine learning, which require brawnier processor cores like x86. ARM is considered a "wimpy" core that provides strength in numbers. Intel has a wide lead over Qualcomm in machine learning with an assortment of deep-learning chips like the Xeon Phi and FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) in its arsenal.

There is a separate competition brewing in the IoT market, in which Qualcomm has a big advantage over Intel. Qualcomm dominates in telematics, and is spending US$47 billion to buy NXP Semiconductor, which provides circuitry for cars, IoT devices, and other low-power devices. Intel is trying to grow its profile in the market and has made numerous acquisitions.

The mobile market should be a long-term strength for Qualcomm, but it is facing competition from MediaTek and companies like Samsung and Apple that design chips internally.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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