Apple tablet could give ARM the lion's share of UMPC architectures

Intel Atom badgeConvergence in computing is an exciting trend to watch, and as our devices improve, they start to take on the characteristics of each other. Our mobile PCs are getting lighter, flatter, and more touchable with better perpetual connections; and our mobile phone screens are getting bigger, their processors are getting more powerful, and they're interacting with the many of the same services we use on our PCs.

Even if the mystery Apple product next week doesn't look exactly like a "big iPhone," the fact that many people already assume that's what it will be, is a sign of the strong current of convergence in consumer electronics.

This week, ABI Research is saying this shift toward the always-connected ultra-portable device will ultimately reduce the x86 architecture to a minority position. Since 2008, x86-based chips from Intel, VIA, and Freescale have had considerable success in finding their way to ultra-mobile PCs -- whether the UMPCs themselves have been successful or not.

Witness: In 2009, nearly 90% of all ultra-mobile computers (netbooks, ultra-slim notebooks, tablets, convertibles, and such) were based on an x86 processor architecture, such as Intel's Atom line. Smartphones and embedded devices, meanwhile, continued to be dominated by ARM-based processors like the Marvell XScale and Texas Instruments OMAP lines.

This is because most of the first generations of these ultra-portable devices were still only equipped with Wi-Fi as their principal connection to the Internet. But now that they have matured, ultra-mobile computers are beginning to come equipped with 3G modems as a standard feature, and to foster that perpetual connection, they're using chips based on the ARM instruction set.

ABI senior analyst Jeff Orr said, "2010 will be pivotal for building momentum behind non-x86 solutions, and gaining adoption in both distribution channels and by end-user populations worldwide."

"I think the ABI guys have climbed out on the end of a long, thin limb," Insight64 principal analyst Nathan Brookwood told Betanews. "But many of these stories depend on the definition of the devices and/or categories involved."

In its research, ABI classifies "UMDs" as Ultra Mobile PCs, netbooks, mobile Internet devices (MIDs)/smartbooks, connected media players, mobile game devices, mobile broadband still cameras, mobile broadband digital camcorders, connected e-book readers, and "other consumer electronic devices."

"From my perspective, so-called 'netbooks' run Windows, and since ARM doesn't, it won't gain much share in that segment," Brookwood said. Likewise, "smartbooks," is a parallel class of devices exclusively built on the ARM architecture. We've frequently heard of these devices but we're only now beginning to see them emerge out of the concept phase. Spearheading the smartbook initiative is Qualcomm with its Snapdragon chipset.

So I asked Orr about the leading "ultra mobile" platforms based x86 and ARM
-- Intel's Atom and Qualcomm's Snapdragon.

"Snapdragon is currently being deployed across smartphone handsets, but newer announcements this year may see the first form factors that may fit into the MIDs or netbooks for example...or tablets. Atom, obviously is coming from more of a compute-centric angle and is working its way down in form factor size toward smartphones. So I'm not sure that you're going to see any one vendor necessarily take over any other vendor in the near term.

"The point," Orr continued, "is to demonstrate that the x86-versus-ARM conflict in all of these ultra-mobile devices is undergoing a significant change, where [the devices] were only available via x86 and Intel Atom processor architectures through last year. There's a significant shift that's starting to occur with numerous ARM-based suppliers, including Qualcomm, entering the market starting in 2010."

There are a number of big ARM-based solutions coming out this year, Brookwood pointed out, like Nvidia's new Tegra. "They may be the guys to beat as the ARM/Intel battle heats up," he told Betanews. "Tegra II includes a dual core Coretex A9 capability."

But it still seemed to me that ABI's Orr was putting a lot of stock in something else happening this year -- something that will create a seismic shift in the architecture of ultra-mobile devices that won't be coming from Qualcomm or Nvidia.

Brookwood said, "Beyond the architectural issues, business models come into play. OEMs can often get chip suppliers like Samsung to roll a custom ARM design for them, with the CPU cores, DSP cores, and peripherals they want. Intel has a bunch of standard SOCs they've designed, which they hope to sell to OEMs. There's little evidence (other than LG) that this strategy is working. Intel announced a 'have it your way' strategy that involved Atom cores at TSMC [Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] about a year ago, but there's little evidence that strategy is working either."

Indeed, Samsung could be the real leader in the proliferation of ARM in non-phone devices, especially since it's been a long-running rumor that the Apple tablet, expected next week, will be based not on an Intel Atom platform as analysts predicted last year, but instead on the same ARM Cortex A8 chipset that Samsung makes for the iPhone 3G S.

"I, like everyone else, am waiting to see what Apple will use for their rumored tablet," Brookwood said. "I'm betting it will be an ARM from Samsung. Second choice would be their own ARM, from the PA Semi guys they acquired two years ago. Atom comes in at a distant third in my handicapping."

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