Is the future PC a smartphone?

The CEO of graphics-chip supplier Nvidia repeated his claim that traditional PCs will be replaced by smaller devices based on non-Intel silicon.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Will small, powerful, connected-to-everything devices running on non-Intel silicon become the personal computer? The CEO of graphics-chip supplier Nvidia thinks so.

Nvidia CEO Huang speaking at an Nvidia conference this week.
Nvidia CEO Huang speaking at an Nvidia conference this week. Nvidia

The sentiment, voiced at the company's annual conference this week by chief executive Jen-Hsun Huang, has been expressed before. And like any strong strategy statement from a Silicon Valley CEO, it's self-serving. Nvidia is staking a good chunk of its future--as much as half of its business--on chips based on the ARM design.

But that doesn't mean Huang has got it all wrong, either. Indeed, ARM-based devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad, Motorola's Droid, Research In Motion's BlackBerry, and countless future smartphones and tablets from Motorola, RIM, Apple, and others will use the ARM chip design. "ARM is the fastest-growing CPU (processor) in the world today. It's the instruction set architecture of choice of mobile computing," Huang said. "It is very clear now that mobile computing will be a completely disruptive force to all of computing."

Huang continued. "This (smartphone) is the first computer that is equipped with all kinds of sensors, cameras, microphones, GPSs, and accelerometers. This is the first computer that's context aware. Situation aware. Who knows, someday it may be self-aware," he said.

Huang raises interesting questions about the future. Will a future PC be a powerful, multi-core-CPU handheld device that wirelessly connects to large displays and a host of other devices--so the PC is carried around in your pocket or small satchel and then connects on the fly to larger devices and/or peripherals?

But the ARM-based vision also presumes that the largest chipmaker in the world, Intel, is standing still. Which it isn't. Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer, speaking at the Intel Developer Forum last week, talked about context-aware smartphones that "constantly learn about you. Your likes and dislikes. They'll probably know how you're feeling and where you're going," he said. And when asked at IDF if Intel was de-emphasizing smartphones, Chief Executive Paul Otellini responded quickly. "Absolutely not. It's still a major focus of our investment. We're moving toward the launch window of a couple of major phones in 2011. And you've got to lock down before that and go through the interoperability testing with networks. And that's where we are. So, there's nothing really to say until those devices launch on the networks next year."

Nvidia's Tegra chip is aimed at small yet powerful devices.
Nvidia's Tegra chip is targeted at small yet powerful devices. Nvidia

And Intel recently announced that it was acquiring Infineon's wireless unit, which currently supplies key 3G silicon for the iPhone and other smartphones. The company is also putting considerable resources into the MeeGo operating system, which is well suited for small devices. Broadly speaking, Intel's smartphone strategy is to match the next generation of Atom chips with Infineon baseband silicon and 4G technology to eventually offer a full smartphone chip solution. (And Intel isn't doing a bad job with its current Atom design either, which powers over 70 million tiny Netbooks, with many 3G-capable models sold through Verizon and AT&T.)

That said, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple, Nvidia, and other ARM players will build the brains for many of these devices. But Intel and Advanced Micro Devices will too. And, to be sure, Nvidia's future in this market, considering all of the entrenched ARM competition, is probably less certain than Intel's.