Intel will sell more SoCs than mainstream CPUs, says CEO
Atom more important than Core, Xeon?
IDF In five years' time, Intel will be selling more system-on-a-chip products than mainstream microprocessors. So said CEO Paul Otellini yesterday. It's a bold claim and one that warrants closer consideration.
Much depends on what Otellini consider an SoC. Most folk will think of them as small-scale chips for handhelds and embedded applications. And, yes, Otellini has his eyes on those roles. He specifically hopes Atom-based SoCs will take the company into new markets.
Incidentally, he hopes Atom will do the same for others. During his Intel Developer Forum keynote, he mentioned the chip giant's move to use Taiwanese foundry TSMC as a production facility for Atom-based products. That's not new, but this time he added that he want to allow third-parties to work with Intel and TSMC to add technology of their own to the platform.
We've discussed Intel's plan to take on ARM with x86 chips many times in the past - even before Intel sold off its own ARM product line to Marvell in 2006. Otellini's comments about the TSMC deal indicate he wants Atom to become a licensed architecture like ARM, one other chip makers can take and adapt to their needs, but retain a core level of compatibility.
That's doubly interesting given the plan, also announced yesterday, to encourage Atom-specific software development.
Looking ahead, Otellini revealed a basic Atom roadmap that will take the platform to 32nm, 22nm then 15nm. The 32nm versions is codenamed 'Saltwell', and is clearly a die-shrink from today's 45nm 'Bonnell'. But the 22nm and 15nm implementations will be new-core products, he revealed.
Bonnell, incidentally, is the overarching core design that led to 'Silverthorne' handheld tablet and netbook Atoms and 'Diamondville' desktop Atoms.
Each of these will feature in SoC platforms. One of the first is the little-mention 'Sodaville', an Atom-based part for consumer electronics kit. Indeed, Intel demo'd a handful of set-top box reference designs at IDF, all based on Sodaville.
Bonnell is also the basis for the upcoming 'Moorestown' MID platform which is now due mid 2010, though it won't appear in shipping devices until H2 2010, Otellini admitted. That's more time for netbooks to really take hold as the mobile browsing platform of choice.
Intel insists Atom isn't cannibalising mainstream processor sales, but it's clear that it wants to be shipping products for a lot more devices than PCs, and unless you count Intel's upcoming CPU+GPU products as SoCs - they are, but only if your definition of 'SoC' is very broad - then Otellini's statement implies that Atom will become a far more important product to Intel over the next five years than the Core i series and possibly Xeon.
We suspect Otellini was including more highly integrated PC CPUs in among 'true' SoCs for his sales forecast, along with new and upcoming integrated Xeon server chips.
But Atom remains the most important component of Intel's SoC strategy. It's the spearhead of Intel's latest push into embedded markets - Otellini claimed Atom has more than 460 design wins in this arena, many of them, we'd note, are the kind of apps you'd expect to find ARM chips in.
That's not to say Atom is beating ARM - manufacturers are conducting many, many more than 460 embedded application projects at the moment - but as these projects increasingly seek to bring internet connectivity on board, these two platforms can't help but become pre-eminent, and not just in the netbook vs smartbook battle.
Intel will be providing more details about its Atom-based SoC roadmap later today. ®
Forgotten Tech 'Timna' - Intel's first system-on-a-chip
The main CPU is a distraction
>Actually, desktop computers were ARM's original market.
Yes, ostensibly, but Acorn's marketing department had been previously fired by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. They (the marketing department) could only conceive of selling into education, and even higher education was an unattainable leap of the collective imagination (hence the fact the UN*X version only sold 200 copies.)
Someone who had been working on the UN*X version uttered a phrase I will never forget; "one in every washing machine."
I actually prefer the even more ironic, "two in every washing machine." The main CPU is an irrelevance - even if every netbook and smartphone in the world uses an Atom as the main CPU there will still be ARM processors, probably *many* ARM processors, in the machine.
The article suggests that Intel has realized this. Back before iAPX86 every microprocessor was an embedded controller - that's why microprocessors were developed (to replace manufacture-time programmed PLAs with software controlled logic). The 6502 was an embedded controller, the ARM was too. Intel has been driving headlong down a blind alley for 25+ very successful years, but it really *is* a blind alley. There is only so much money to be made controlling the main CPU, there is so much more money in all the other CPUs that the main CPU has to call on to do even something as simply as reading a piece of flash memory.
Atom is just there for Windows
The only reason things like EeePC are running x86 is to run Windows. Get rid of Windows FUD and these devices will all be running ARM.
Atom is far too power hungry for nice small devices. ARM uses only a small fraction of the power and is cheaper too.
Nick writes: "I want an ARM-powered desktop, never mind laptop, netbook, and ARM's traditional market!".
Actually, desktop computers were ARM's original market. ARM was developed for Acorns next-generation desktop computer line (to replace their 6502-based 8-bit line which included the BBC Micro), and it worked very well for that -- having much higher performance than the alternatives at the time. Acorn even made Unix workstations using ARM. It is only after ARM was sold off as a separate company that the focus moved to be entirely embedded and mobile applications (Apple's Newton project played a large part in that move).
So the move "up" to servers and desktop machines is a move back to the original market for ARM.
Intel smells the coffee?
A move to lower-power(-consumption) processors in the mass market is long overdue. I want an ARM-powered desktop, never mind laptop, netbook, and ARM's traditional market! But failing that, Atom is a fair second-best.
Evidently Intel is ahead of the manufacturers in anticipating the importance of lower-power in much of its market. If they're going to compete head-on with ARM, that sounds like good news for consumers!