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Does Intel Architecture matter?

Intel Architecture, IA or x86, compatibility matters far less in the handheld and consumer electronics space where Intel hopes to place Atom than does the processor itself.

SAN FRANCISCO--The broad outline of Intel CEO Paul Otellini's keynote speech at the Intel Developer Forum on Tuesday was largely familiar. A single Intel Architecture (IA--which is to say x86) spanning servers in the data center to electronics embedded in a television.

This is a self-serving argument coming from Intel. After all, Intel already holds commanding share throughout much of the traditional PC and server space. Translating that success into newer and developing areas of the market where Intel has not historically played--or where, in many cases, the market has not even historically existed--would be a huge win.

But Intel argues that it's not purely a matter of its own interests. Rather, developers and, ultimately, end users benefit from an architecture spanning the small to the large because it lets them leverage common tools and other software.

In the past, one of Intel's proof points for this claim was to demonstrate issues associated with browsing Web sites on smartphones and other devices running non-IA processors. However, such an argument wouldn't be very convincing today in the light of the generally high-fidelity browsing experience offered by products like the iPhone despite the fact that they don't use IA-architecture processors.

Intel even undermines its own argument for commonality when it admits--as Otellini did in his keynote speech--that "handhelds have to rethink the user experience," a comment followed by a demo of a prototype interface running on Moblin. Moblin is an open-source project focused on building a Linux-based platform optimized for the next generation of mobile devices.

Commonality as a benefit and principle is hard to argue against in the abstract. But handhelds differ in many ways from PCs. User experience, given differences in screen size and the way users interact with devices that don't have a full-size keyboard, is one obvious area. However, optimizations around power usage, performance, and component integration are also much different.

In short, software that runs across a wide range of device form factors and types will hardly be common across that range even if the underlying processor architecture is. At the same time, many of the software technologies visible to both developers and users--including Flash, browsers, and Linux--increasingly span a range of processor architectures.

None of this should be taken to suggest that Intel's Atom--the processor family that's spearheading the company's push into Netbooks, handhelds, and consumer electronics--won't succeed. Perhaps as Otellini suggested, in five years, Intel may indeed sell more system-on-a-chip (SoC) processors based on its Atom  processor than traditional microprocessors.

However, to the degree that Intel succeeds in this area of the market, it won't primarily be because Atom is x86. It will be because Atom beats out its competitors on metrics such as power efficiency, cost, size, and the ability of Intel partners to leverage it for their own custom designs.

A good software development framework on Atom matters too and building from an IA foundation will help there. But ultimately it's about the chip, not the architecture.