Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) recently unveiled its next generation Core M (Broadwell) CPUs.
Core M processors are about 50% smaller and 30% thinner than Intel's Haswell (Core i3, i5, i7) chips, with a 60% lower idle power level for a longer battery life. Most importantly, Core M chips won't require fans, making it possible for manufacturers to launch tablets, convertibles, and ultraportables which could be as thin as 7.2mm.
By comparison, Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface Pro 3 is 9.1mm thick, and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad Air is 7.5mm thick. Over 20 OEM products using the Core M are expected to be available by the holiday season.
In my opinion, the Core M processors represent a turning point in Intel's ongoing battle against ARM Holdings (NASDAQ:ARMH), and could be the catalyst which finally helps Microsoft realize its vision of a "One Windows" ecosystem.
Understanding ARM vs Intel
ARM Holdings doesn't manufacture any chips -- it simply licenses out its low-power designs to chipmakers like Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Broadcom, and Samsung.
Intel's biggest mistake over the past decade was missing the shift toward smartphones and tablets. ARM gained ground quickly against Intel by promoting its chips more power-efficient alternatives to Intel's x86 chips.
Since battery life, not processing power, is generally more important for mobile devices, ARM eventually claimed 95% of the mobile handset market as Intel offered no viable alternative for smartphone makers. Intel responded with the Atom (Bay Trail) mobile processor in 2008, but it failed to dent ARM's market share. ARM's lead carried over to the tablet market with Apple's launch of the iPad, which was powered by an ARM Cortex-A8, in 2010.
Keeping ARM out of the high-end market
Core M tablets or convertibles will likely cost around $1,000 -- putting it in the same price range as the 128GB iPad Air ($929), a 13-inch MacBook Air ($999), and the 128GB Surface Pro 3 ($999). The processor alone will cost around $300, more than many low-end tablets.
Intel clearly doesn't intend for Core M to power its low to mid-range devices, which are currently powered by Atom and Haswell CPUs. Instead, Intel's strategy is to push back against ARM with Atom processors for low-end devices (like Toshiba's Encore Mini) and continue launching Haswell and Core M processors for mid-range to high-end devices.
Keeping ARM out of the high-end laptops and desktops is a top priority, since ARM has repeatedly touted the 64-bit A7 as a "desktop class" processor. That bold claim which has fueled constant rumors that Apple would eventually replace Intel's x86 processors in its Macs with ARM-based chips. ARM has also suggested that these new 64-bit chips -- which it claims has lower power consumption than comparable Intel processors -- will eventually steal market share away from Intel in the high-end server business.
"One Windows" is ARM's Achilles' heel
Yet Intel has one key strength that ARM lacks -- Microsoft's support. Microsoft's ARM-based OS for tablets, Windows RT, failed miserably since it couldn't run traditional Windows software designed for x86-based chips. Instead, Windows RT could only run apps from the Windows Store, crippling its usefulness as a productivity device.
That's ARM's key weakness -- its licensed chips still can't reach over 90% of the PCs in the world which still run x86-based versions of Windows. Instead, ARM-based chips power several Google Chromebook models and misfit Windows RT devices like the Surface 2 and Lumia 2520.
If ARM ever wants to make a dent Intel's core PC market, it must convince Microsoft to launch new ARM-based versions of Windows. But after the RT debacle, that's unlikely to happen again in the near future.
Instead, I believe that Microsoft will advance the concept of a single version of Windows for x86-based phones, tablets, and PCs. This means we could see new Atom-powered Windows Phones and more low-end Atom tablets, as well as higher-end Core M tablets and convertibles in the near future. When that happens, Microsoft can finally unite all of those x86 systems under Windows 9, eliminating the need for ARM-based operating systems like Windows Phone and Windows RT.
A Foolish final word
In conclusion, Intel's Core M is significant because it will allow Windows 8.1 tablets and convertible devices to be much sleeker, quieter, and more power efficient than ever. Just as Toshiba and HP's low-end Windows 8.1 tablets, Core M-powered fill out the top end of the market where the lonely Surface Pro 3 resides. It could also fuel the development of some impressive high-end Windows phablets in the near future.
Intel's strategy certainly won't kill ARM, but it could keep ARM-licensed processors out of the PC market while letting Intel carve out its own Microsoft-supported niche in smartphones and tablets.