On June 8, I received an email from Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) titled "X86 Approaching 40 and Still Going Strong," linking me to an editorial co-written by Intel legal chief Steven Rodgers and Intel Fellow Richard A. Uhlig.
In the editorial, Intel spent a good deal of time discussing the various extensions to its X86 instruction set architecture (ISA) over the past 40 years.
The post went into detail about how other companies have tried to "emulate Intel's proprietary x86 ISA without Intel's authorization" in the past, and how Intel took legal action against those companies. It also noted that while Intel "welcomes lawful competition," it does not welcome "unlawful infringement of [its] patents" and "fully expect[s] other companies to continue to respect Intel's intellectual property rights."
"Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel's x86 ISA will meet a different fate," the editorial read, in what is widely believed to be a reference to Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) plans to allow Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) ARM-based processors to run code originally compiled to run on X86 processors.
I'm not a lawyer, and I'm certainly not familiar enough with Intel's patents or Microsoft's implementation of x86 emulation in Windows 10 to intelligently comment on whether Intel would have a legal case against either Microsoft or Qualcomm here. However, I think Intel's best course of action to fend off Qualcomm, and potentially others, isn't to try to fight this battle in court, but to step up its game with respect to products.
Get to work on better products
Qualcomm and other ARM-based chip vendors aren't likely to be able to mount viable attacks in the higher end of the Windows notebook or desktop spaces. The chip performance isn't there even without the overhead that emulation would bring, and with the emulation overhead the experience isn't likely to be that great.
Where Qualcomm and others could stand a chance is in the relatively low-cost thin-and-light notebook market. Or, in other words, Qualcomm seems to be aiming to power systems that compete with those equipped with Intel's ultra-low-power Core processors (think 4 to 6 watts) as well as its lower-cost Atom processors.
Intel does, of course, try to build solid products for this market each year, but the fact that the company seems to be concerned enough with Qualcomm's efforts that it put out a not-so-veiled legal "threat" doesn't inspire confidence.
To fend off threats from Qualcomm and others, Intel should invest more in developing next-generation chip-manufacturing technologies and bulking up its investments in key intellectual properties -- CPU, graphics, cellular, Wi-Fi, and so on -- to make sure its products are so technically competent that it wouldn't make sense for Intel's customers to try using alternative products.
Of course, Intel will probably say it's building the best products it can, but additional competitive pressure might push Intel to find that it can top what it previously thought was its "best."