Intel Fires Back at ARM’s Compatibility Claims

A little while ago, ARM Holdings (NASDAQ: ARMH  ) put out a slide claiming that a large portion of the applications available on the Google (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) Play store require some degree of "binary translation" in order to run properly on Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) hardware. Binary translation essentially means that compiled applications originally intended for the ARM architecture need to be "converted" into something that Intel's X86 processors can run.

Remembering ARM's claims
According to ARM Holdings, a significant chunk of the most popular applications running on Android do have some level of ARM-specific code, thus necessitating some level of binary translation.

Source: ARM Holdings.

At first glance, these numbers are downright worrisome -- how can Intel really gain a foothold in the Android space if its chips have serious compatibility issues? Of course, Intel has done a lot of work with its binary translation scheme, which allows these applications to work, which puts it far ahead of ARM's efforts to penetrate the Windows PC world; but for very performance-sensitive applications, like 3D games, binary translation does come with a non-trivial penalty, as demonstrated here.

That said, at Intel's recent London Analyst Summit, Intel VP Bill Savage gave a very illuminating presentation with respect to these binary translation claims, and how not all is as it appears.

Intel's great Android adventure
First, Intel is working diligently to get 80% of the top 100 free and paid applications ported to X86. Given Intel's willingness to push into the tablet/mobile markets, there's little doubt that the company will hit this goal sooner rather than later.

Source: Intel.

Further, in Savage's presentation, he noted that, while many applications on the Android market do require binary translation, only relatively small portions of those applications are native and require such translation in most cases. Savage also claimed in his presentation that the graphics portion of these applications don't require translation either. This is only partially true -- the pixel/vertex shader programs that run on the GPU do not require translation, but the actual game engine code would, so there will be a performance impact in a real-world game.

At any rate, the idea here is that, for most applications, the amount of native code is negligible, and thus the translation overhead is lost in the noise of the full program execution. However, this doesn't mean that Intel can afford to not get as many of the major applications ported, nor does it mean that Intel shouldn't be aggressive in trying to get developers to target Intel as a first-class citizen on Android.

What is Intel doing to help that transition?
In order to promote this transition, Intel is leveraging its extensive software and services group to get developers on board. For example, the company is promoting its Intel Integrated Native Developer Experience product, which allows developers to easily build native programs across both Android and Windows:

Source: Intel.

However, while making easy-to-use tools for developers is nice, not all developers are going to adopt them, so Intel needs to do a lot of work with developers to make sure that, going forward, X86 is a prime target. Intel has indicated that it is doing so and, hopefully, as more Intel-powered Android devices roll out this year, developers will be increasingly attracted to the platform.

Foolish bottom line
Let's be realistic -- ARM has the first-mover advantage, and many powerful players have invested large sums of money in the ARM software ecosystem. While the nature of Android makes it so that Intel architecture has a pretty good shot at becoming an equal partner to the ARM architecture in terms of compatibility long term, it is going to be neither easy nor cheap. However, Intel seems to recognize the importance of this, and is going to fight tooth and nail for the hearts and minds of developers.

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  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2014, at 9:50 PM, stretcho44 wrote:

    "ARM Holdings put out a slide "

    I have seen the slide posted on articles and presentations but is there a presentation that it was part of? I cannot find it published by ARM.

    "binary translation does come with a non-trivial penalty"

    What do you think happens to the translation overhead when the tests are run on an out-of-order-execution core like Bay Trail instead of the in-order-execution core like CloverTrail+. Will the number of problem apps go up, down or stay the same?

    "working diligently to get 80% of the top 100 free and paid applications ported to X86"

    Do you know the name of any of the Android Apps that fail? Was there more problems with FREE or PAID apps?


  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2014, at 11:21 PM, rav55 wrote:

    Everyone makes a lot of noise about how the ARM Tablet and mobile market is a 200,000,000 unit market. And Intel having recently announced that it intends to give away 40 million units in this space also seem to indicate the Intel might gain some market share however debillitating that will be to shareholder value.

    However what folks are conveniently ignoring that out of that 200,000,000 better then 125,000,000 of these units are SUB-$500 tablet. With Surface Pro releasing just under $900 for the LOW PRICE ENTRY it is painfully clear that Intels likely market is only about 3-5 million units at best TOTAL for x86.

    Go to Amazon and Newegg and see what is being sold even in the west. Then come to the far east or Pacific rim and see for yourself how cheap tablets are selling as the disposible income just does not support anything more than a sub $500 tablet indeed a sub $300 is much more the norm.

    These tablets are indeed replacing laptops but NOT as laptops are used in the west or 1st world economies but rather as communications and entertainement devices. In fact a tablet is often someone's ONLY source of video and audio entertainemnt as TV and cable is also not affordable.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 11:39 AM, doawithlife wrote:

    My gen 1 Surface Pro still has a limited form of OSx(wifi wont work unless i use a USB dongle, which is actually a pain), Windows 8, and Ubuntu. It also has literally every console game from PS1 and earlier on mSD cards. A few games from PS2 and after, but not many as the games take up a lot of data space.

    I can play a game of Mario 64, Sims 3, WoW, Final Fantasy 10, or pick at random from over 250 original NES or Sega games.

    Then when I get home I can turn on my TV and lights by hitting a button and transfer the screen on my tablet directly to my TV or computer monitor.

    ARM can do some of those things, to varying degrees. You can't buy an ARM device that can do all those things. That is why in the end x86 will win.

    ARM was intentionally made limited so that it used less power and could still handle specific tasks well. x86 was always the swiss army knife.

    If Intel would relax on some of the patents, ARM might have a chance. Intel is so much futher ahead and with an architecture that makes more sense. Any bonus to the ARM architecture is quickly going up in smoke.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 12:40 AM, SSchlesinger wrote:

    "However what folks are conveniently ignoring that out of that 200,000,000 better then 125,000,000 of these units are SUB-$500 tablet. With Surface Pro releasing just under $900 for the LOW PRICE ENTRY it is painfully clear that Intels likely market is only about 3-5 million units at best TOTAL for x86."

    Nice try. The reality is that there are sub $100 tablets available (saw one the other day for $69) that feature Intel inside. When they say 40 million units they mean it.

    I like Ashraf's article. What is implied is that the scare tactic slide the ARM put out was to keep developers away from Intel. It's an interesting world now where Tim Cook is catering to developers at conferences. They hold all the cards. When you look at the ARM supplied slides you'll notice that Intel went up from 20 to 21% of the market that is developed exclusively for X86 on Android. Expect to see this number to keep rising. The incentive to do both Intel Android and Windows seems very solid. This should get some traction.

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Ashraf Eassa

Ashraf Eassa is a technology specialist with The Motley Fool. He writes mostly about technology stocks, but is especially interested in anything related to chips -- the semiconductor kind, that is. Follow him on Twitter:

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