Intel’s x86 Threat To Mobile Innovation
Intel has a chequered history in the mobile computing arena. The company has achieved great commercial success in the desktop and server CPU markets. Chances are that the nearest desktop, laptop or Chromebook has an Intel chipset as its heart. Intel has developed many different chipsets based on the x86 architecture such as the Intel Pentium, Intel Celeron, and Intel Atom. Of these, the Intel Atom is the mobile-optimised chipset technology designed for mobile use.
We’ve seen Android compiled to run on Intel Atom x86 hardware. The first 64-bit builds of Android ran on Intel Atom hardware. There has been a whole family of Atom chips inside a range of smartphones and tablets including the Windows-powered HP Stream 7 and Android-powered convertible ASUS Transformer TF103C. Intel spent billions of dollars helping companies produce tablets based around the Intel Atom chipset, such as sponsoring hardware redesigns for Intel Atom chips, only to pull out of the smartphone market in early 2016.
This year sees the 40 year anniversary of Intel’s x86 architecture, the grandfather of many of today’s technologies that we take for granted including Microsoft Windows. Over the years, Microsoft Windows has evolved and progressed and is very important today. It’s a core operating system for much of the world, even if Microsoft’s financial ambition has turned more towards productivity software.
In order to run x86 software, we either need an Intel x86 processor or something compatible with the technology. Earlier in 2017, Qualcomm and Microsoft announced plans to run Windows using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset emulating Intel’s x86 technology. Check out this Qualcomm video below:
The potential of this project hinges around the smartphone-class chipset’s benefits of low power consumption, low heat and a smaller circuit board, as the Snapdragon 835 includes built-in connectivity. Microsoft and Qualcomm reckon that the combination will use around half the battery compared with an Intel x86 based design, and use a fraction of the power when in standby. This stands to reason because the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset is based on ARM technology, designed first and foremost for mobile use running on batteries. ARM technology has steadily been evolved to provide more and more computing power at the same low power use. Intel’s x86 chipset was designed to run connected to mains power and the company has worked to reduce power consumption whilst maintaining or improving performance.
In an ideal world, Intel would see Microsoft and Qualcomm’s announcement as inspiration to push towards building low power, high performance chipsets to meet the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 threat head on. But instead, Intel blogged a warning to all chipset and software developers:
“Intel carefully protects its x86 innovations, and we do not widely license others to use them. Over the past 30 years, Intel has vigilantly enforced its intellectual property rights against infringement by third-party microprocessors… However, there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization… we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights.”
Does this mean it’s time to go back to the drawing board? Perhaps. Will Microsoft and Qualcomm license Intel’s technology? Again, perhaps. Let’s hope that Intel do not position themselves to stunt development and innovation, because imagine how well Samsung DeX type hardware could be running the full blown Windows 10? Or conversely, Intel’s threat may simply make the x86 platform less relevant in tomorrow’s IT world.