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Ultra-mobile devices: Atom to beat ARM... just, says analyst

Intel will not own SCC, UMPC, MID biz

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Can ARM mount a serious challenge for Intel's Atom processor family? Market watcher ABI Research thinks so - it has forecast that almost half of all UMPCs, SCCs and MIDs will be ARM-based come 2013.

It also reckons that for every Windows device that's sold, two more Linux machines will be snapped up, though ABI admitted that Linux laptops are currently suffering a higher return-rate than Windows ones.

But it's the ARM forecast that's more interesting. Intel's Atom line currently forms two strands: one for Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) called 'Silverthorne', and another for Small, Cheap Computers (SCCs) and Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) called 'Diamondville'. The chip giant's pitch is that both will run all the x86-based software out there - operating systems and apps - without modification.

That, it believes, puts it at an advantage over ARM, which licenses its technology out to multiple vendors, many of whom adjust their offerings to differentiate them. Different versions of the ARM core don't help matters, the upshot of which is that an app coded and compiled for one chip won't necessarily run straight away on another. The many operating system and user-interface variants only muddy the waters even more.

Maybe, but then plenty of major vendors, particular in the mobile phone arena, have spent years working with ARM technology and cope very well with this situation, thank you. Intel believes the fact that developing for one device and running the resulting app out of the box on many more is way cheaper than developing dozens of versions will win out.

You'd think so, but ABI's forecast suggests not. Last month, the company claimed that in 2013, 68 per cent of all these devices will be MIDs - handheld tablets for web browsing. This is crucial for ARM because these are products more likely to evolve out of today's smartphones than from tablet PCs or UMPCs.

Take an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch, a Samsung Omnia or Tocco, a Nokia 5800 XpressMusic or an LG Secret and scale it up in size a little, and you have what Intel might well call an MID. 'Might call' because none of these machines use x86 processors but are ARM-based devices.

Indeed, many people would agree they're already MIDs in all but name. With sales undoubtedly as strong, if not much stronger than netbooks, MIDs are thus already outselling SCCs today, let alone on 2013.

Still, Intel has a point. It defines an MID as a device capable of running the full internet, and smartphones can't. Even the iPhone can't, for all its Safari browser is one of the best attempts at presenting desktop-centric web pages on a small screen. It can't because it has no Flash support.

Plenty of other devices do, through Adobe's ARM 9-oriented Flash Lite, but it remains the case that these need to be tailored to specific device/OS/browser combos which is why you can't just download it to your phone and head straight over to YouTube.

That does give Intel an advantage, which is probably why ABI says Atom will have more than half of the combined MID/UMPC/SCC market in 2013, though it's probably not counting the successors to today's ARM-based smartphones as MIDs.

"Cellular voice-enabled MIDs will be able to replace phones entirely - they will become the new high-end smartphones," says ABI principal analyst Philip Solis. We'd put it the other way round: new high-end smartphones will become MIDs.

Bootnote
Not that ARM need rely on MIDs - we hear there are a fair few ARM-based netbooks in the pipeline that are claimed to deliver rather better battery life than Intel or VIA fitted machines have been able to. Know more? Fill us in

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