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Intel versus ARM for the mobile computer

Intel will always have AMD to worry about in the PC business. In the mobile world, however, it's shaping up a bit differently.

The ongoing tussle between Intel and AMD has dominated the news in recent weeks, but there's another potential battleground shaping up for Intel that could have a huge impact on personal computing.

A major topic I want to cover over the next several months is the looming showdown as the smart phone industry tries to develop more powerful computers, and the PC industry tries to build smaller and smaller computers. This week has provided a decent glimpse of Intel's vision of where it thinks the industry needs to go with its Silverthorne processor, designed for a new concept of computer called the Mobile Internet Device.

This is a concept Mobile Internet Device that Intel thinks people will be able to build with its Moorestown technology. It folds in the middle, like a book. Tom Krazit/CNET

We're looking at a major architectural battle over the next three years or so: the ARM instruction set, which dominates mobile phones, versus the x86 instruction set (Intel, please stop calling it Our Architecture). ARM isn't widely known outside the industry, but it designs processor cores for chips that power more than 90 percent of the mobile phones on the planet. Intel, you've probably heard of at one time or another.

Both companies and their partners will be aggressively courting computer users and software developers over the next several years. Intel is trying to find its next big source of growth by scaling down into power-sensitive areas such as MIDs, which are basically minitablet computers. ARM wants chip makers to use its cores in more powerful smart phones, such as Apple's iPhone, which uses an ARM-based chip made by Samsung. Both companies need the support of software developers who will be developing applications for their devices, and whoever has the best combination of compelling design and need-to-have applications will have the early lead as the first quarter of the computer industry winds to a close.

I'll get ARM's side of the story in more detail over the coming days. But Intel is contending that it has a major advantage in that all the software developed on and for PCs will run on its Silverthorne chips for MIDs, said Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's ultra mobility group.

Chandrasekher asserted that software developed for chips based on ARM cores aren't necessarily compatible. He said that's because ARM's licensees implement slightly different combinations of ARM technology, and there are no APIs (application programming interfaces) that lets application developers write an application that will run across those many different implementations. "If a smart phone is going to become more of a data oriented device, then it's going to have to run applications, then compatibility matters," he said.

Is that an upside-down iPhone? Nope, it's an upside-down shot of another Moorestown concept device. Tom Krazit/CNET

Intel is promising that any and all software written for PCs will run on MIDs. This does appear to be a more compelling argument for a software developer trying to decide where to place its bets. However, that's hardly a stamp of approval for the MID project at large.

If we've learned one thing this summer, it's that people are finally ready to start figuring out what they want on a mobile handheld device. The physical design matters, the user interface matters, and the applications matter. The key question is in what proportions. Intel might have an advantage when it comes to application development (although ARM probably has a retort), but will that matter in a world where more and more applications are probably going to delivered over the Internet?

I'd like to try and figure this out. Watch our site for a longer piece examining the two chip instruction sets and what they bring to the fight. This will take years to evolve, with things probably starting to heat up around the time Intel releases Moorestown, the successor to Silverthorne. Chandrasekher isn't saying much about Moorestown, but Intel is showing off these concept devices as a preview of what it thinks will be possible with that chip. One of them looks awfully familiar.