updated 09:30 pm EDT, Tue March 20, 2012
ARM, Samsung, Intrisity contribute to success
Two years after buying Texas-based chip maker Intrisity, Apple is poised to become the world's largest mobile device chip provider by the end of 2012, technology research firm In-Stat is claiming. The success is built on the phenomenal popularity of Apple's mobile devices along with selective use of manufacturing partners including ARM and Samsung. Intel is only just now bringing Atom-class processors to mobile devices, reports InfoWorld.
The study done by In-Stat included what are commonly thought of as "mobile" devices, including notebooks, smartphones, tablets, handheld gaming system, e-readers and the iPod Touch. It specifically excludes desktop computers and servers.
Apple was already in second place at the end of 2011, trailing Intel by only five million processors with shipments of 176 million mobile processors compared to Intel's 181 million. This gave Apple a 13.5 percent share of the mobile device market against Intel's 13.9 percent.
It's unlikely that Apple's success in the mobile device field will turn Intel into a rival, however. Intel has long held out the possibility that Apple will eventually switch to its own mobile processors at some point, and is spending heavily on new smartphone, tablet and ultrabook-capable chips to help it capture a place in a market it has been slow to become a presence. Intel hopes to compete against ARM's processors with a low-power Atom chip called Medfield that will be rolled out over the course of the year.
Despite a threat last year to switch away from Intel processors if notebook chips didn't become more energy-conscious, Apple is very reliant on Intel for processors across its growing Mac line, and would be able to move away from them only in the longer term. Intel responded quickly and has since made power conservation a major focus of its work, enabling to begin offering chips suitable for power-sipping portable devices.
Apple currently uses ARM processors as part of its own overall chip design, which are superior to Intel's offerings thus far in their ability to achieve strong performance at low power requirements. Apple incorporates the ARM processors into its own chip designs along with other components, which it then sends to Samsung for manufacturing.
Despite charges and litigation that the tablet division of the Korean company "slavishly copies" Apple's designs and patents, thus far the chip manufacturing side of Samsung has proven to be a good fit for the iPad maker, to the point where Apple is expanding a Texas-based facility used in conjunction with a Samsung factory in Austin, said to be where the next generation of A-series chips will be built.
While Apple is likely to eventually use its own chip designs in other future products, perhaps even Macs themselves, it may not rely on processors from ARM for that side of the business. Intel's new emphasis on strong performance using conservative amounts of power is likely to keep Apple on board with Intel for at least their Mac products, and if Intel can eventually find a way to out-perform ARM on power, it could lead to at least the option of Intel chips in some other products.
Intel may also be trying to fend off a challenge by ARM in the desktop space -- Microsoft has said that Windows 8 will in some form be able to run on either ARM or Intel architecture, and ARM has explored the possibility of producing desktop-quality chips with partners like Qualcomm. There are still driver and compatibility challenges with ARM chips that could use Windows, InfoWorld says, but should MS decide to make a "clean break" with Windows 8 on some products, a lot of the disadvantage of ARM chip use would fade.
Intel is eager to master low-power chips for mobile devices as quickly as possible, both to compensate for falling demand from traditional PC makers for chips as well as be able to offer competition to ARM for both Apple's business and that of other competing tablet makers. The new iPad's record-setting success, to likely be followed by a refreshed iPhone later in the year, makes it seem likely that Apple will take the mobile-processor crown from Intel, at least in the short term. [via InfoWorld]