Intel is a multi-national corporation which has dominated the chip design and manufacturing market for decades. Being an industry leader, the company has secured high-profile deals and partnerships with major corporations involved in computer system manufacturing and assembly. But why Intel has become a dominant player in the chipset design business and what about companies in the same sector? Why Intel lacks competition and what has kept its prominent competitor ARM holdings in the dark despite having a large-scale market? Let’s see what got Intel its current powerful stance and why its latest announcements of future ventures would mark another success for the company.
First Step Towards Evolution: Intel Launches the 4004
If we were to start dwelling into how processors as we know them to comeinto existence, we would have to go ages back in time to the discovery of Silicon. Processors initially evolved into a chip through a course of time from switches and gates, as proposed by Nikola Tesla and transistors invented at Bell Labs in the forties. While the evolution might be dated back, but for the modern generation, processors have always been defined by the name Intel.
After its foundation in 1968, Intel was into developing processors on order basis for large corporations, and one such order was from Japan’s Busicom Corp. who had asked Intel to build them a consignment of a custom microprocessor, which were fully integrated into a single small chip. Intel did that with the help of physicist Federico Faggin. As the new Intel 4004 operated at full functionality in test environments, Intel finally launched it as a commercially available piece of tech. This marked not only Intel’s foray into chip manufacturing for individual computers, but also embarked a series of research and experimentation to change and ultimately dominate the personal computing experience of users.
The x86 Architecture: Intel’s Domination Over Chip Manufacturing and Design
The Intel 4004 was followed by successors of its own until 1981. But before that, Intel registered a new success in chip design architecture, which at the time no one thought would become the base for the future of chip design and manufacturing technology for not only Intel but also the other potential competitors in this industry.
Every CPU is designed per a specific ISA, which stands for Instruction Set Architecture, which basically tells the CPU to do its job. These instructions, which are written in assembly language run the mathematical codes of the CPU, therefore, controlling CPU’s command comprehension, processing, and final execution. The x86 architecture was a similar set of instructions, that first found its way into all this through Intel’s 8086 processors in 1978. The x86 architecture is technically called CISC architecture (Complex Instruction Set Computing). In simple words, CISC is made for executing complex commands on a computer by making processors capable enough for comprehending multiple operational instructions as a single data slot. This allows the computer system to run apps and software that requires more memory to run.
Success of x86 Architecture: Intel beats Motorola to Become Industry Standard
The name “x86” was derived from the initial line of processors Intel launched with an “86” suffix such as 8086, 80186, and 80286. Intel was then competed in the market by Motorola’s 68000 series of processors, which were chosen for Apple Macintosh. However, x86’s backward compatibility for older and newer devices made it easier for Intel to remain in the market. Moreover, Macintosh’s failure resulted in Motorola’s incompetency to provide their processors in large quantities to then industry leader IBM, who later decided to go ahead in business with Intel. And that’s where x86 became an industry standard, pushing others to base their cloned set of chip architecture and instruction on the same.
AMD: The First Competitor
AMD, short for Advanced Micro Devices Inc. was founded the same time around Intel was founded. AMD, just like Intel was co-founded by the former employees of the same company called Fairchild Semiconductors. AMD started off as a second supplier for Fairchild itself and later also went on a joint venture with German conglomerate Siemens. But AMD made a breakthrough when Intel provided AMD with databases of its x86 architecture. When IBM moved ahead with Intel, it put on a condition in the contract that Intel would have to provide IBM with a second-source manufacturer for its x86-based processors, and AMD got the bid. This resulted in a ten-year partnership between AMD and Intel. In this period, AMD remained second-source supplier for x86 processors after Intel, and in the next five years, launched its own processors cloned out of the x86 architecture, thus, establishing the potential for future competition for the chip manufacturing business in the future.
In the current scenario, AMD is the sole competitor to Intel in the chip design industry. However, Intel has an in-house fabrication process, which allows it to ensure a better quality material in its processors. On the other hand, AMD is still out-sourcing fabrication and is dealing with heating issues. However, AMD’s new Ryzen chip architecture has proven successful and has outperformed Intel in the market at certain levels. But, Intel still dominates the PC and server section of the chip industry.
ARM Holdings: A New Discovery
ARM Holdings was earlier called Acorn Computers, where a few engineers from Cambridge discovered a power-efficient processor chip. The difference was that this chip was designed on a completely different architecture dubbed RISC (Reduced instructions Set Computing). Unlike CISC, this architecture was capable of handling all computation for the CPU in single data packets, allowing the computer to take basic problems in storage as well. But there’s a catch. Although RISC-based chips can take all sorts of CPU commands in storage separately, such architecture would not be able to do large-scale computer system tasks and would not be able to run software that requires more memory. This is because the memory would be consumed by instruction data in comparatively large quantity. Even if a chip is designed capable of running a server or system of larger memory, it wouldn’t be cost-effective and would even face severe lags and issues of heat and damage.
But, there was one advantage. The new RISC chips were able to run on less power and were even capable of using the energy of nearby residual components. This made these chips the best chance of success for portable devices, and this led to a deal between Acorn and Apple for Apple’s Newton devices. Newton failed, but the word got out that there is a processor which can run on portable devices. The name ARM was established in 1998 IPO of the company, and since then ARM has acquired over twenty corporations involved in any kind of semiconductor research and development business. The company has invested heavily in research since then and has become a source of the architecture of a variety of processors that run the modern-day smartphones of brands like Samsung and Apple. So, if anytime you hear Qualcomm or Cortex, know that ARM is involved in the background.
So, Why No One Ever Heard of ARM?
ARM is one of the most successful British corporations. But the reason that no one really knows about the company is that it never designs or manufactures chips in its own name. ARM is a research-dedicated organization which has evolved, upgraded, and improved its chipset architecture. In exchange for this research and architecture, ARM charges the designers and manufacturers a license fee for using its intellectual property, and also charge royalties for every chipset that is sold in their smartphones. The power-efficient chipsets have proven successful for smartphones and have been proven effective in running high-end portable devices, which run small-size applications.
But, ARM now faces a major competition problem in the future. A lot of companies have now started making their own CPUs and GPUs. Qualcomm is one such example. Others are trying to do that as well. Samsung has also been trying to make an efficient chip design; however, apart from Qualcomm, no other company has shown considerable success. Meanwhile, ARM has been a licenser to other smartphone makers like Huawei, LG, Apple, and Samsung and it continues to provide them with architecture designs.
Amidst the recent developments in Qualcomm and Apple settlement and the latest Huawei ban, smartphone manufacturers are aiming towards self-sufficiency. Will ARM’s business model thrive in the future just being dependent on royalties on architectural licenses?
Will ARM Ever Takeover Intel?
Intel has faced certain ups and downs in its chip design business, but it’s nearly impossible to take down Intel for its British counterpart. Though ARM has a hold on the majority of the smartphone market, Intel and its x86 architecture own desktops, servers, and other large-scale communication equipment. As stated earlier, ARM’s RISC architecture is nowhere close to cloning an efficient CISC-type server. RISC was always meant for portable device chips and ARM has no significant progress in laptop and server section of the chip industry as of yet. Moreover, Intel has a long-standing relationship with IBM which puts Intel in a profitable position in comparison to ARM. Moreover, Intel also has the advantage of brand name, which is a big deal in the marketing-driven business.
Intel’s partnership programs with other companies are also escalating. Intel’s latest keynote event showcased its partnership with companies like HP, DELL, and Acer to make efficient laptops for content creators, as well as a partnership with Alienware to make gaming-compatible laptops. Furthermore, Intel recently announced its new Ice Lake processors along with its plans to launch its visionary Athena laptops. On the other hand, ARM hasn’t highlighted or announced any large-scale development or diversification in regard to its chip design section. Given this fact, Intel’s new Core 10 processors would be another dent in the chip industry, especially in the section focused on powering desktop and servers. With the recent acquisition of ARM by Softbank, it is unclear where ARM’s chipset design business would lead further.
It can’t be said that ARM is gone or that Intel has a 100% success rate. While ARM still is the leader in smartphone-based chip design, Intel has been struggling for sustainable profits. This means that both companies are in mixed states in terms of revenue and market share. But when we talk about numbers, Intel’s multi-national partnerships and investment in new ventures account for its comparatively higher revenue. Intel might not have a monopoly in the market, its focus on quality chipset designs have always landed it consumers and the long-lasting brand name is likely to preserve that in the future. On the contrary, ARM’s continuous dependence on license royalties needs to change to sustain a profitable future amidst the inevitable competition.