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For Intel, small laptops bring challenge from ARM

The focus of today is on Intel's earnings, but tomorrow could see U.K.-based ARM and its satellite of chip and device makers pose a growing competitive threat.

Quick: Name an Intel rival whose name begins with an "A" and is abbreviated by three letters.

AMD? How about ARM. Even with attention focused on the immediate impact of Intel's earnings coming Tuesday afternoon, pesky questions linger about a likely future in which U.K.-based ARM and its satellite of chip and device makers pose a growing competitive threat. Maybe more so than Intel's traditional rival, Advanced Micro Devices.

Two recent statements from analysts argue that the camp of companies that make chips based on designs from ARM will dictate future competition in mobile computing. These companies include Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and, in the future, Apple.

New Tripoli, Penn.-based The Information Network said late last month that ARM processors, not Intel's Atom chip, will gain the largest chunk of the Netbook market in 2012--about a 55 percent market share. Netbooks are small, ultralight laptops typically priced under $400.

The market research firm argues that small ARM-based laptops, dubbed "smartbooks," will thrive under subsidized services from telephone carriers "modeled after Hewlett-Packard (cheap printer, expensive ink) and the mobile service providers (cheap cellphone, expensive monthly wireless charge)."

And on Monday EE Times cited analyst Didier Scemama, with ABN AMRO Bank NV, who said there is a "shift towards computing based on ARM-Linux and away from Intel-Microsoft over the next technology cycle," which he said would begin in the second half of 2010, because ARM processors would match Intel chips in performance and beat them on power consumption and possibly cost.

The analyst also postulated that eventually Microsoft would offer a "high-level Windows operating system" running on ARM chips and that ARM could capture 30 percent of the notebook PC processor market by 2014. He speculated, too, that ARM might be taken over by the chip companies that are its licensees.

All of this competition from ARM might be good for consumers but not necessarily for future Intel revenue streams. A report last week from DisplaySearch said that the growing market share of Netbooks has pulled down revenue in the portable PC market due to a low average selling price. Revenues for Netbooks rose to $3 billion in the second quarter of the year, jumping 264 percent over the second quarter of 2008, while traditional notebooks saw second-quarter sales fall to $23.2 billion, a 14 percent decline from the second quarter of 2008, according to DisplaySearch.

These are all just forecasts, of course, and pricier mainstream Intel-based laptops running Microsoft or Apple operating systems today account for the vast majority of the market. Moreover, other analysts argue that consumers will not necessarily flee en masse to ARM-based laptops as it will be difficult to displace a longstanding consumer preference for Intel-based machines running Windows.