Intel Vs Qualcomm:

A Fight to the Finish between Two Industry Giants:

Intel Corp. of the US and Qualcomm Inc. of the US are making preparations to enter processors for tablets and other growing applications. Both companies are leaders in their fields, one in PC processors and the other in mobile phone processors, and both desperately want the new market. The outcome of the battle will sway the entire mobile equipment processor market.

Intel, the ruling master of the PC microprocessor market, and Qualcomm, top dog in mobile phone chipsets, are heading for a face-off. The battleground is processors in portable equipment, such as the tablet terminals that exploded with the appearance of the iPad from Apple Inc. of the US (Fig.1).

Over the last year, Qualcomm has achieved major success in the smartphone sector, building on its years of supplying baseband processor ICs and application processors to mobile phones. The lever they used to accomplish it was the Snapdragon processor, which first showed up in a handset in summer 2009. It single-chips a 1GHz central processing unit (CPU) core and a baseband processor handling 3rd-generation mobile communications (3G) technology. Already about a dozen handsets offer the Snapdragon, primarily those running Android and Windows Mobile OSes.

Intel, meanwhile, essentially monopolizes the market for PC and server microprocessors. In 2008 it used the Atom low-power processor to create a brand-new netbook market. Netbooks, combining low prices with small size and offering limited functionality and performance, have made it possible for Intel to significantly boost shipment volume.

Two World Leaders Go Head-to-Head

Both companies are now taking aim at the terminal market somewhere between smartphones and netbooks. Qualcomm calls them “smartbooks, ” while Intel prefers “mobile Internet device” or MID. Regardless of which name you use, they have displays between five and ten inches in size, and come in tablet, clamshell or sliding cases. They are equipped with 3G and Wireless LAN communication functionality, and designed to run on Linux, for example. In other words, they compete directly with the iPad.

Intel is the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, and Qualcomm boasts the highest revenue in the world of any fabless semiconductor manufacture (Fig.2). The marker for portable processors, in tablets and other terminals, no doubt appears to both firms to be the perfect place to show their strengths. After all, each firm commands overwhelming strength in adjacent product sectors. The concept of sharing the pie is foreign to them, and the winner will gain overwhelming dominance.

On the verge of entry into the new market, both firms are making preparations to dominate it. Preparations have been under way for some time, in fact, such as by boosting innate processor performance or enhancing the mobile communication technologies to be used in the mobile gear.

Sticking with the x86 Instruction Set

Getting into the mobile equipment processor market is a crucial goal for Intel, and the company has tried to achieve it many times in the part. The mobile equipment processors based on the XScale core are one example.

In 1999, Intel entered the market by acquiring the StrongARM core semiconductor business from Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) of the US. StrongARM was already being used in personal digital assistants (PDA) and other terminals, and offered instruction set capability with the CPU cores from ARM Ltd. of the UK. Intel developed XScale from the StrongARM base.

In 2006, however, Intel sold the XScale project off to Marvell Technology Group Ltd. of the US. According to Intel’s Kedia, “When we started to evolve the XScale, we discovered restrictions imposed by the ARM instruction set. And we were worried by that, because our forecasts suggested that in three to five years mobile computers would need performance beyond what ARM could achieve”Note 1). As a result, Intel switched to the Atom processor, using the x86 instruction set.

Note 1) Compatibility with PC software is also critical, leading Intel to use the x86 instruction set already used in PCs. With appropriate design, the firm felt that dissipation could be slashed sufficiently with x86, too.

In May 2010, the Intel Atom processor was used in the Moorestown (development codename) chipsetNote 1). “Standby dissipation is only 21mW, no more than one-fiftieth of the prior model. That significant evolutionary improvement will accelerate introduction of Intel processors in mobile equipment, ” says Intel’s Kedia.

Note 2) Intel shipped the first-generation chipset (codename Menlow) using the Atom processor for mobile equipment in 2008, but it was not very successful in the marketplace. The primary cause was the high standby dissipation, which at 1.2W was too high for mobile gear. Moorestown integrates the graphics processor unit (GPU) with input/output (I/O) IC, memory controller and other circuits with the Atom processor to slash total dissipation, along with other design tweaks.

CPU Core Showdown

Qualcomm is also committed to CPU cores developed in-house. The Snapdragon series entered volume production in 2009, integrating the proprietary Scorpion CPU core featuring an ARM-compatible instruction set.

At that time Qualcomm already offered the MSM series of single-chipped devices combining application and baseband processors, for mobile phones. In spite of that, they elected to launch the separate Snapdragon line because they recognized an axis of competition other than just wireless communication baseband processing. “We think the key factors that differentiate processors for mobile equipment are baseband processing, the CPU core, and graphics/multimedia processing.” Instead of competing solely in wireless communication, the firm’s Snapdragon is also a direct challenge to Intel’s established strength in CPU core performance.

Qualcomm entered into an architecture license with ARM, and formed a new team to design a proprietary CPU core Note 3). This initiative made it possible for Qualcomm to develop the first smartphone processor running at 1GHz. In 2009 the company acquired graphics and multimedia technologies for mobile equipment from Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) of the US. In fact, Qualcomm was already using the technology under license in its Snapdragon, but as Frankel explains: “We felt that the continued evolution of Snapdragon would require acquiring AMD’s technological resources, and engineers.”

Note 3) The architecture license covered the development of a proprietary CPU core offering compatibility with the ARM instruction set architecture.

Competitive Evolution

Intel and Qualcomm will continue to competitively evolve their processors in 2011 and beyond. The 3rd-generation mobile equipment chipset slated for release by Intel in 2011 (codename Medfield) will feature a brand-new micro-architecture, integrate the I/O ICs now mounted externally, and drop the design rule down to 32nm. Intel believes that Medfield will achieve the low dissipation that a smartphone chipset demands, and plans to push it to all the major smartphone manufacturers.

Both Intel and Qualcomm provide chipsets featuring processors made with 45nm manufacturing technology. Intel plans to use new manufacturing technology and micro-architecture, while Qualcomm plans to shift to multi-CPU designs. Performance figures are estimates based on data published by each firm.

Qualcomm, on the other hand, is significantly expanding its product line-up to cover the whole spectrum from smartphones to tablets and netbooks. The company is especially interested in tablets, planning products such as devices integrating dual CPU cores, supporting the newest communication protocols, and operating at lower frequencies to slash dissipation (Fig.3).

Qualcomm Courts Google

Intel and Qualcomm are also serious about beefing up their software platforms (Fig.4). Intel has used the Linux-based Moblin platform, and Qualcomm has used BREW.

Both firms are reaching out to partners to help beef up the OS. Intel has merged its software platform with Nokia, based on Linux. Qualcomm has contributed to the commercialization of Google’s Android.

In the last few years, though, Qualcomm has been actively involved with the Android platform from Google Inc. of the US. Rather than taking part in the promoting organization from the start, Qualcomm has instead taken a cooperative stance, such as releasing the world’s first Android terminal, and then developing the Nexus One mounting the Snapdragon together with Google and HTC Corp. of Taiwan. The company is also promoting the adoption of Android in smartbooks.

“Our mission is to supply high-performance brains for computers. We were working on standardizing Mobile WiMAX because LTE did not exist at the time. We don’t care whether it’s Mobile WiMAX or LTE as long as the result is more mobile computers that demand high-performance processors, ” says Intel’s Kedia.

Lately a number of people in the industry have mentioned the close relationship between Intel and the baseband processing IC arm of Infineon Technologies AG of Germany. An engineer at one domestic components manufacturer says that in more and more cases an Intel PC microprocessor is being bundled with an Infineon baseband processor. He adds that he has also heard rumors that Intel is considering acquiring Infineon’s baseband processor resources. That rumor would seem to support the idea that Intel doesn’t care whether it uses 3G, Mobile WiMAX or LTE.

Framework a Key to Competition

A large number of companies are joining the Big Two in the mobile equipment processor market competition… companies like Freescale Semiconductor Inc. of the US, Marvell Technology Group, NVIDIA Corp. of the US, Renesas Electronics Corp. of Japan, Samsung Electronics, Co. Ltd. of Korea, ST-Ericsson of Switzerland, and Texas Instruments, Inc. of the US are all licking their chops at the prospect.

An engineer at a semiconductor manufacturer explains that Intel and Qualcomm are different from all these companies because they compete with the entire framework, not just with semiconductor products. Intel has established a business model for PC microprocessors that addresses the needs of major manufacturers, providing equipment reference designs and software platforms. Qualcomm instead builds the many patents it has gained through capital-intensive R&D into wireless communication standards, and assures superiority in the market by being the first to support the new standards. Licensing fees from the many patents underlying these standards provide the capital needed to drive new R&D.

Both firms plan to adapt their existing frameworks to the mobile equipment processor market, and in fact they may not have any alternatives. The ultimate victor in the competition may be decided by which framework best fits the characteristics of the mobile equipment processor market.

Intel and Qualcomm have both made careful preparation for the battle, they may be standing on quicksand because it is yet unclear just what the balance of power will be between service providers, software platform developers and other involved parties. For both companies this is an entirely new challenge, and it is impossible to tell yet which will be able to achieve victory. Source:


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