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Intel and Apple--future rivals?

As Intel readies its most potent chip yet for small devices, Apple is already a competitor.

As Intel readies its most potent chip yet for small devices, Apple may already be using competing technology.

Apple iPhone 3GS processor
Apple iPhone 3GS processor iFixit

One of the themes of the upcoming Intel Developer Forum (starting Tuesday) will be the chip giant's foray into the smartphone and mobile Internet device (MID) markets. Intel's current Atom chip is fine for Netbooks but has had little impact on MIDs and zero impact on smartphones, where it is simply too power hungry to be usable.

Enter Moorestown. A much more power efficient Atom chip, due by 2010, that should find its way into high-end LG smartphones, MIDs from Asian device makers, and tablets (from HP? Dell?).

Just so happens that Apple is doing analogous chip development. When Apple acquired chip design firm P.A. Semi in March 2008 it got a team of very capable engineers that, almost certainly, are designing silicon for future iPhones, iPods, and tablets (or "media pads"--choose your nomenclature).

But it's really not even necessary to speculate about the future. The Apple chip has already arrived (see photo). Some analysts believe that the Apple-branded chip in the iPhone is a fairly unique design and that Apple is simply using Samsung as a chip "foundry" or manufacturer. That would mean Apple is already competing with Intel's Atom, not to mention the host of ARM chip suppliers such as Texas Instruments and Qualcomm.

And where might Apple supply its own silicon in the future? Beyond the iPhone--where Intel clearly has nothing to offer currently--there's the expected emerging tablet and MID markets. Make the iPod touch's screen a few inches bigger diagonally, add a few more features and you theoretically have a MID. (Some, of course, will argue that the iPod is already a MID/media player.) Make the screen even bigger (8 to 10 inches), give it more compute and graphics horsepower, and add a few more software and hardware bells and whistles, and you theoretically have a next-generation Apple tablet and/or media pad.

Those are all markets where Intel's Moorestown (and, later, Medfield) will compete.

Apple has a current market capitalization of about $165 billion (Intel's is about $110 billion). Two heavyweights with two competing visions of small devices. Will one of the big battlegrounds of the future be Apple tablets versus Intel-based tablets? Or--perish the thought--an Apple Netbook using an Apple chip instead of an Intel Atom? It's tantalizing to speculate.

And 2010 is just around the corner. It should be an interesting year for fresh new device designs and equally interesting competition between two computer industry Goliaths.

Note: Here's the official Intel description of Moorestown: "Intel's second-generation MID platform, which consists of a System on Chip (codenamed 'Lincroft') that integrates a 45nm Intel Atom processor core, graphics, video and memory controller. The platform also includes an input/output (I/O) hub, codenamed 'Langwell,' that includes a range of I/O blocks and supports wireless solutions.

(See: CNET Reporters Roundtable discussion of IDF and other Intel topics.)