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That favorite smartphone of yours might just get smaller and better, thanks to Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC ) innovation in the field of chip design. According to Intel, the company made something close to history Wednesday when it announced that it will be making processors based on its new 3-D transistor technology.
With the demand for electronic gadgets growing sharply in the middle of an easing recession, this move is sure to push ahead Intel's lead in cutting-edge chip technology. However, with plenty of competitors duking it out in mobile, how should investors approach investing in this space?
Intel's new baby
This new innovation will involve significant changes in the design of the transistor, the basic component of microchips. Intel has been working on this pathbreaking technology for 10 years, with the first announcements coming in 2002. This technology will be used in the manufacture of the 22-nm processors about to be released by Intel.
The new structure is called Tri-gate. The increased capacity that it brings is in keeping with Moore's law; observed in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, it states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit has doubled every two years (though, initially Moore's law held a doubling every year) since the inception of the IC.
The most significant change in the design is that there are now three conducting surfaces on the transistor instead of just the one in the earlier planar model. This new technology is going to allow Intel to make more efficient chips that can be fitted into smaller electronic devices. According to Intel, these chips will provide a 37% power increase over 32-nm chips already in production. However, for the technology to be adopted, Intel will have to take its facilities up several notches, and this it plans to finish doing by 2012.
The reason chip makers like Intel are beefing themselves up is the burgeoning international demand for smartphones and tablet PCs. Last year, smartphone sales went up by a whopping 72%, according to Gartner. In a world where the thirst for sleeker, sexier devices has become insatiable, there's no telling where the sales figures will jump to this year and beyond.
In the first quarter of 2011, Intel had 80.8% unit market share in the PC processor vendor market, according to market research firm IDC. It is obvious that Intel will try to remain at the top and attempt to increase market share in other market segments. But there is impending competition from ARM-based chips developed by ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH ) . The technology is licensable and is manufactured by chip makers such as Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) and Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM ) .
Chips built on ARM architecture are used mostly inside smaller, low-power-consuming devices such as mobile phones. They are also found inside tablet PCs and smartphones. ARM-based chips are also going to run the next version of the Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows OS, which will probably be targeted at a broader array of devices. IDC estimates 13% of PC chips to run on the ARM platform by 2015. As ARM gains popularity for its simplicity, Intel needs to make sure it continues to be at the top of the business in the long run. The new Tri-gate technology is its answer.
Also out to make a kill
As the market heats up, other players are also gearing up to put up a serious fight. Applied Materials (Nasdaq: AMAT ) is paying $4.9 billion to buy Varian Semiconductor (Nasdaq: VSEA ) in order to meet the high demand for chips arising out of growing popularity of smartphones and tablet PCs. It is evident that the road ahead for all areas of the semiconductor industry is filled with cutthroat competition as companies attempt to reposition themselves to compete for smartphone business.
Fools and chips
As long as people continue to love electronic gizmos like smartphones and tablet PCs, the chip market is going to remain hot.
However, the thing with technology is that mass scale technologies such as these are always conducive to the first movers. While the market gets flooded with gadgets, the ingredients used to manufacture them also grow in numbers. But in the long run, it will probably be only a few companies that manage to stabilize themselves in the global market by achieving a high product standard.
For the Foolish investor, the time might be now. Investing in some of the smaller stocks now might mean greater profits in the long term. But be careful where you put your money. With so many players in the chip maker market, finding those few winners might prove elusive.