Quarter after quarter, Intel has been pumping out products consumers don’t want and watching its revenue shrink—making comparisons to ailing smartphone maker Blackberry seem apt. But at the same time, Intel has been hard at work developing the chips that could save the company: super fast, power-efficient CPUs for mobile phones that could sweep aside competing processors made by rivals like Qualcomm, Samsung and Apple. (All of which start with designs from current superstar ARM.) With these new chips, the next two years could see manufacturers climbing over each other to offer consumers phones and tablets that are as fast as notebook computers are today.
Indeed, if Intel plays its cards right, its forthcoming “Silvermont” mobile microprocessors, detailed today for the first time, could become the de facto processor in a whole range of devices, from phones to notebooks, but also including cars, servers, set-top boxes, and countless “embedded” computing devices.
What makes these chips so special is that Intel is about to bring a modified version of the process it uses to build its highest-end chips, which dominate in the PC and server markets, to mobile processors. As a result, Silvermont processors, which have elements as small as 22 nanometers, draw as little as one-fifth as much power as Intel’s current mobile chips but are just as fast.
The power of these chips can scale in the other direction, as well, which means that with the same amount of current flowing into the mobile chips now in iPhones and Samsung’s Android smartphones, a phone with an Intel Silvermont chip could be significantly faster. (It’s not clear how much faster, in part because software for running smartphones and other mobile devices will have to be re-compiled to run on Intel’s chips.)
By 2014 or 2015, Intel will have taken its Silvermont mobile chips down to an even smaller feature size—14 nanometers—and every time the company does that, it slashes power and has the opportunity to increase performance.
And Intel’s chips will have to be significantly better to gain market share, since chips designed by ARM and manufactured by giants like Samsung, Apple, and Qualcomm already dominate the mobile market. As Anand Lal Shimpi of Anandtech put it, “It’s beyond frustrating to think about just how competitive Intel would have been had it aggressively pursued [the mobile] market [before now].”
With a competitive mobile processor occupying the end of the market where consumers are putting all their money, and its ongoing dominance of the server—i.e., cloud—market, Intel could be poised for a comeback. But don’t look for signs of life until these chips become a new standard, a change that will take years.