Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) has been pouring resources into the smartphone arena in an effort to topple low-power ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH ) processors from their dominant position, thus far to limited effect. ARM still reigns supreme, with 95% of the smartphone market using its designs. However, a new chip making technique could pose major challenges to Intel's progress, but might also threaten to upend ARM from its smartphone throne.
Crossing the channel
The big idea comes from SuVolta, a semiconductor design start-up that tackles excess chip power consumption. If you've ever scowled in frustration at your suddenly dead cell phone, you know how important power consumption is. This has been ARM's specialty, but Intel's upcoming Ivy Bridge chips should limit power consumption pretty heavily in their own right. However, SuVolta's PowerShrink chip platform and its Deeply Depleted Channel design could blow right past Intel and ARM.
Built by Fujitsu, SuVolta's design managed to reduce active power use in a chip by over 50% -- and that's not just a nebulous baseline, it's 50% less than the typical active consumption of ARM chips. The best thing about this innovation is that it works with existing chip making processes -- no funky new-fangled fabrication gizmos required. This is big news for the computing industry as a whole, which has struggled mightily for years to reduce active power consumption below this level.
Not on the other side yet
PowerShrink also appears to be compatible with existing architectures, which means that it could be additive, rather than competitive, with ARM's designs. It's unlikely to work with the new Tri-Gate design featured on Intel's Ivy Bridge due to the design's greater complexity; Intel bills them as 3-D transistors, the first production model of their kind. Until SuVolta's technology enters production -- ARM licensees Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM ) and Cypress Semiconductor (Nasdaq: CY ) have both praised it -- it's hard to tell what impact it may have on ARM's licensing efforts.
Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM ) , as the leading smartphone chip maker, should be very interested in PowerShrink, as should Marvell (Nasdaq: MRVL ) , another top chip maker. NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA ) , which is losing mobile chip share to Broadcom, needs as much help as it can get here, not least because ARM is rolling out its own mobile graphics processor architecture.
Intel may very well try to snatch up SuVolta, but such a move seems likely to spark regulatory opposition. However, Intel itself has claimed that an upcoming processor design will use 20 times less power than its current chips. That could swing the mobile war's tide back to Intel's side, perhaps for good. It's hard to see anyone else matching the company's financial commitment to research any time soon.
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