Intel gets locked into desperate fight for life

Some of Intel’s biggest customers and partners including HP and Dell are apparently considering moving away from the chip maker in what could be the biggest industry shift in years.

According to influential rag the San Jose Mercury News, Intel is fighting a war to keep them and kill off any attempts from rival chip companies.

HP and Dell account for a third of  Chipzilla sales but have been seen wining and dining sales people from ARM. All this is possible now that Microsoft, who has also been Intel’s chum, has announced it is selling an ARM tablet. Apple is also supposed to be looking at moving ARM onto its laptops.

Intel is not likely to let this happen without a fight of biblical, although atheistic proportions. So far, its main strategy has been to try and get its own chips into smartphones and other devices dominated by its competitors.

However, Mike Feibus of TechKnowledge Strategies has warned that significant customer desertions could well weaken Chipzilla’s grip on the microprocessor market.

He thinks that Intel was an outfit which was happy when computers were big, phones were just for chatting and Windows software ran exclusively on x86.

Worldwide sales of PCs will grow by less than five percent over 2011, while sales of smartphones and tablets are expected to jump by 39 percent and 98 percent, respectively. True, these figures don’t take into account that there are a lot more PCs than mobile devices for sale, but most of those them use ARM processors.

Intel’s Achilles’ heel is power, and while it is doing a lot to fix this problem, it is still way way  behind ARM.

But now this power consumption philosophy is starting to influence those who run servers and from there it will almost certainly move into PCs. In the next couple of years there will be a chip war to see which is the best.

Intel spokesman Jon Carvill, an ex-employee of ATI and AMD fab Global Foundries,  told Mercury News that he was not bovvered.

ARM has to deal with a mountain of legacy software and hardware which effectively props up the Intel empire. Intel just needs to focus its innovation on improving that situation, rather than having to make everything new and interesting.

What it has to worry about is its partners playing both sides. This means that if a company buys servers from HP it can run Intel boxes alongside ARM ones and slowly migrate over.

There seems to be pressure on HP to avoid doing that sort of thing. Last month HP decided not to use ARM chips in a new tablet and server in a move seen to appease the Great Satan of Chips, also known as Chipzilla.

But at the same time the maker of expensive printer ink did point out that it will still ARM up other tablets and servers. It will just not do so in the initial phases of the product launch.

This fits into what we think will be a common strategy among hardware makers. The product will be tested on the market using Intel chips but as it moves to the cheap and cheerful stage there will be a push to ARM as a way to keep costs down without losing too much performance. If this scenerio places out, then Intel’s chip partners will get more confident about releasing early products on ARM at the same time as their Intel offerings and finally there could be ARM only initial releases.

The real loser in this is AMD which traditionally is the “no-brainer” rival to Intel. It offered the chance to be a cheaper alternative to Intel without the need to change from x86. But lately it has suffered from the worst of all worlds. It has fallen behind Intel technologically speaking while at the same time being still stuck with x86’s energy problems.

In the long term it will be easier to have a choice between Intel and ARM rather than feature AMD in the equation.