Is Intel killing x86 architecture?

Microsoft running Windows on ARM SoCs? Nvidia building a RISC-powered CPU? Yes, the industry message to Intel is crystal clear: We will no longer be bound by the shackles of x86 architecture.

Unfortunately for Intel, the paradigm shift towards a RISC-based future isn’t limited to the mobile sphere.

Indeed, Nvidia chief scientist Bill Dally recently ushered in a brave new world for ARM when he declared that next-gen RISC chips were fully capable of powering everything from the average desktop to advanced supercomputers.

Of course, the obvious question is: How did Intel allow this to happen? And what steps can the chip giant take to defend its PC market position, while ensuring a place for x86 architecture in the lucrative mobile sphere?

Understanding Mobile

Unfortunately, Intel made a critical error in its initial approach to the modern mobile market by engineering chips with an eye towards performance – rather than reduced power consumption.

While this attitude may be appropriate for the traditional PC market, it simply doesn’t work for mobile.

The average consumer isn’t interested in high-level speed benchmarks, but does want a smartphone or tablet that offers a reasonably long battery life. 

Intel belatedly came to this conclusion and is now paying the price for its strategic miscalculation.

It certainly isn’t a secret that the chip giant has spent lots of time and money reducing the power-sipping requirements of its Atom SoC lineup.

Industry Impatience

However, the industry is signaling it can longer wait for Intel to introduce a viable mobile platform.

 To be sure, even Microsoft is slowly moving away from the traditional Wintel model by declaring that future versions of its flagship operating system will support ARM-based SOCs.

Clearly, Redmond isn’t ditching x86 architecture. Yet, the company has little choice but to hedge its bets with ARM – at least in the mobile sphere.

There is simply no other way for Microsoft to counter Android’s meteoric rise or challenge Apple’s iOS without an ARM-friendly (mobile) operating system.

Obviously, it won’t be easy for Microsoft to gain mobile market share at the expense of Google and Apple. 

Windows Phone 7 is off to a relatively modest start, and it doesn’t seem as if the operating system is wowing all that many actual end-users.

In contrast, RISC-based tablets and smartphone running a full-fledged, stable version of Windows are more likely to entice consumers with all day battery life, a familiar UI, performance and seamless integration with a PC.

What can Intel do?

ARM is currently the undisputed heavyweight champion of the mobile world. 

However, the company – along with its partners – is preparing to challenge Intel in areas traditionally associated with “classic” x86 architecture, such as PC CPUs (see Nvidia’s Project Denver), servers and even supercomputers.

As such, the company now faces a potentially bloody war on two fronts.

Yes, Intel still dominates the PC market. And yes, it will be a while until ARM and its partners are viable competitors in that sphere.

Nevertheless, the writing is on the wall.

Santa Clara must shake off its complacent attitude and commit even greater resources to improving Atom until it is capable of effectively competing against – and even exceeding what ARM has to offer.

Otherwise, the company will be left with a steadily eroding market share and a mobile platform that is always just second-best.