Intel’s ARM wrestling problem

In the past, only the hardcore knew what kind of silicon powered their machines. These days, the processor — especially in mobile devices like smartphones and tablets — is a huge selling point.

For the most part, these categories of devices are powered by these processors:

  • Texas Instruments — the OMAP processor, found in Motorola’s Droid 2 and Droid X
  • ARM — Apple’s “A4” system,  Samsung’s “Hummingbird” processor, and Qualcomm’s “Snapdragon” processor

To be clear, ARM is winning. Most of the well-known processor packages — systems on a chip — are ARM-based.

Notice that the desktop processor giant Intel is missing from that short list. However, the company is hoping to change that. According to Computerworld’s Matt Hamblen, Intel plans on unveiling several tablets powered by its Atom processors, followed by smartphones powered by Atom chipsets later in 2011.

Atom should be another familiar name to consumers, as it is the processor of choice when it comes to netbooks. However, Intel has been slow to move to other products, giving ARM little resistance  on their way to dominance. It is estimated that almost 80% of Android devices run on ARM-powered chips. Every iPhone, iPad and iPod touch are powered by ARM-powered chipsets as well.

There’s a good reason for this. ARM’s offerings take very little power and run very cool — both important factors in tablets and smartphones. Intel hasn’t quite figured that out yet, but we’ll know for sure after CES.

The history of ARM is a fascinating one. In 1990, the company was founded under the name “Advanced RISC Machines Ltd.” by the now-defunct Acorn Computers and a little California-based group named Apple Computer. The group created the processors used in the very first tablet computers — the Newton.

The Newton was mind-blowing for the time. All of its handwriting recognition, IR-blasting, green goodness would have been impossible without ARM.

According to Jay Yarow at Business Insider, owning ARM saved Apple in the “Dark Ages” of the 1990s. When Apple sold its holdings in what would become ARM, it made a cool $800 million. Without that money, there is a very real chance Apple would not have made it.

Back in the summer, rumors were floating around that Apple was considering buying its old spin-off. However, those rumors died out after a few weeks in circulation. Such an acquisition would significantly change the landscape of mobile technology.

Probably more than Intel will.

Stephen Hackett, formerly a Lead Mac Genius at Apple, now spends his days running the IT department of a large non-profit in Memphis, TN. He writes about Apple, design and journalism at Like all twenty-somethings, you can find him… Full Bio