Post Intel Developer Forum Thoughts

This week, many on our team have been attending Intel’s annual Developer Forum. Intel looked to tell a bold and ambitious story but also one that, under the hood, gave some key indicators of how Intel is positioning itself for growth.

The first thing you can spot in the last few years of the Intel Developer Forum is the lack of PC content at the show. Intel had a much more expansive story — virtual reality, augmented reality, connected cars, connected cities, cloud computing infrastructure, 5G, and more. While relevant, the PC, which was once Intel’s cornerstone, is now on the backburner and not even mentioned as a part of the future.

Building Complete Solutions

Intel’s announcement and demonstration of their Project Alloy VR/AR headset is an example of the way Intel sees itself deploying new platforms as complete solutions. Project Alloy is designed to help drive standards for the industry to build AR/VR headsets around the Windows Holographic platform. This headset and all the components and sensors are mostly Intel IP but can be designed in multiple ways by partners to fit the use case. Standards and quick time to market will be a key part of driving this solution and Intel appears to be the farthest along at the moment.

This complete solution is also embodied in Intel’s Real Sense Camera solution, Galileo, and Joule solutions that are turnkeys for applications for computer vision, the maker community, and wearables/embedded applications. In this rush to create IoT, wearables, and a host of other new technologies, companies are looking for a one-stop shop for technological solutions. Intel seems finally in a place to offer this across a range of hardware designs.

Manufacturing ARM Chips

One of the more interesting announcements, which has already inevitably led to speculation, was Intel announcing they are upping their capabilities as an ARM Foundry by acquiring the IP licenses necessary to start making ARM chips for mobile devices. Several key points from ARM’s press release on the news stood out:

I’m excited about our collaboration with Intel Custom Foundry for several reasons including:

  1. The benefits to our partners by expanding the ARM ecosystem to offer more manufacturing choices for premium mobile and consumer SoCs.
  2. Intel Custom Foundry will give its customers access to world-class physical IP and ARM implementation solutions.

  3. All the major foundries now offer Artisan platforms, further confirming it as the industry standard for physical IP.

One of the strengths and differentiators of the Artisan platform is the availability of ARM core-optimized IP—what we call ARM POP™ technology. The value of POP technology for an ARM core on the Intel 10nm process is tremendous, as it will allow for quicker knowledge transfer, enabling customers to lower their risk in implementing the most advanced ARM cores on Intel’s leading-edge process technology. Additionally, POP technology enables silicon partners to accelerate the implementation and tape-outs of their ARM-based designs.

The top bullet is an expansion of the ecosystem. I’ve long made the point that Intel believes only a few manufacturers will be able to get past 10nm process technology. If that is true, then current semiconductor companies will need as many options as they can in order to get the silicon designs they need. If we believe we are heading toward a world with greater than 50 billion connected objects and sensors in nearly every gadget sold, the industry needs Intel’s capacity to help make the silicon of the future.

The second part of the point of “choices for premium mobile and consumer SoCs” is telling of the type of customers Intel wants. Intel doesn’t seem as interested in making commodity SoCs, even though they will take whatever they can get at this point. An emphasis on premium SoCs really only means two customers–Apple and Qualcomm.

While the big emphasis of this announcement was Intel’s foundry which will provide access to ARM’s Artisan IP and allow for very quick and very basic system designs. Companies like Apple and Qualcomm create their own customer architectures and have their own custom libraries which make the ARM Artisan IP points here irrelevant for those customers. Someone like Spreadtrum or LG, even TI, Mediatek, and others are ones who use generic ARM cores and would need this technology at their manufacturer to move forward.

Now this does not mean Intel could still not win Apple or Qualcomm. In fact, I think it is becoming increasingly more likely Intel could win Apple in some form. Similar to the way they have likely won some bit of Apple’s modem business in the new iPhones. My gut says we could likely see Apple-designed ARM chips on Intel process technology in the iPad before anything else. Even ARM acknowledges the superiority of Intel’s process technology and it would be fascinating to see what Apple could do with their designs on a leading edge process of Intel’s at 10nm or even 7nm in the future.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how Intel showcases ARM cores running on their process technology. While I don’t believe LG or Spreadtrum make the best market proof points for ARM + Intel process designs, they are at least market proof points. I would not be surprised, assuming Intel doesn’t win a showcase customer anytime soon, to see Intel actually design a reference chip of their own, based on the ARM architecture, to showcase what a premium ARM chip running on 10nm could really do. While pure game theory on my part, if this happened it would really signal a truly different Intel has arrived.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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