Windows 8 May Help Break ARM’s Hold on Mobile
Chris is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.
The XOLO X900, the first Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) based smartphone, launched last week and so far it is well-regarded. The phone, made by Indian manufacturer Lava International, runs Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android OS and marks the first of several Intel-based phones expected this year. While the phone itself isn’t top of the line, it is competitive and packed with attractive features. It also proves Intel has finally managed to produce a mobile worthy chip and perhaps more importantly, it is built on x86 architecture. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and its Windows platform have long been an important part of Intel’s success, PC compatible mobile devices might be the leg up Intel needs.
Rival chipmaker ARM Holdings (NASDAQ: ARMH) dominates the mobile market but hasn’t been a factor in PCs until recently when Microsoft announced that its hotly anticipated Windows update, Windows 8, would run on ARM-based chips. Many viewed this as a blow to Intel but now that Microsoft has revealed more about Windows 8, it turns out it may be a game changer in Intel’s favor.
Microsoft announced three major editions of Windows 8, two based on x86 architecture and one, Windows RT, which runs on ARM-based chips. In the announcement Microsoft also provided a chart that showed the features of the 3 platforms and what stands out is the lack of compatibility between the x86 and ARM based options. It seems clear to me that Windows RT is starting off with a major disadvantage. A Windows 8 tablet running on an Intel chip will have access to all the apps available to an ordinary PC, while an ARM-based tablet is limited to specially designed apps significantly reducing available options.
There is also the fact that Windows RT doesn’t support some of Windows’ commonly used business features, including functioning as a Remote Desktop host. Without question, the enterprise market is an important source of revenue for both Intel and Microsoft, so playing well with business needs will likely be a big factor in adoption that is tilted in Intel’s favor.
Even with those disadvantages Windows on ARM isn’t doomed. Microsoft has been actively courting app developers, so even though it won’t have as many legacy apps, Windows RT is likely to have plenty of options to choose from. Microsoft knows that apps, particularly in mobile, drive sales and will likely continue to spend to draw others to its platforms. Mobile manufacturers are also much more familiar with using ARM designs and are unlikely to stop producing ARM products in favor of Intel ones. The most likely outcome will be ARM and Intel-based options from the major manufacturers. ARM also excels at power efficiency; a major concern for mobile computing and long considered Intel’s weak spot, which makes the decision between the two a bit more interesting.
Intel’s current mobile chip, Medfield, doesn’t outperform ARM, but it does do well. Even more importantly, Intel is preparing to release a dual-core chip based on the same process later this year, tailor-made for the tablet market that also offers comparable performance. Intel is also poised to rapidly shrink the size of their process, which has the potential to propel them ahead of the pack. Die shrinks significantly increase power efficiency, so getting ahead of the pack and staying there would alter the mobile chip landscape.
Two things are certain: Intel chips will show up in more mobile devices as the year progresses, and Intel devices will outnumber ARM-based Windows 8 devices at release. If Intel continues to refine its mobile chips, Windows 8 will go a long way toward helping Intel establish a foothold in mobile.
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