When I first started writing about x86 CPUs Intel was on the verge of entering the enterprise space with its processors. At the time, Xeon was a new brand, unproven in the market. But it highlighted a key change in Intel's strategy for dominance: leverage consumer microprocessor sales to help support your fabs while making huge margins on lower volume, enterprise parts. In other words, get your volume from the mainstream but make your money in the enterprise. Intel managed to double dip and make money on both ends, it just made substantially more in servers.

Today Intel's magic formula is being threatened. Within 8 years many expect all mainstream computing to move to smartphones, or whatever other ultra portable form factor computing device we're carrying around at that point. To put it in perspective, you'll be able to get something faster than an Ivy Bridge Ultrabook or MacBook Air, in something the size of your smartphone, in fewer than 8 years. The problem from Intel's perspective is that it has no foothold in the smartphone market. Although Medfield is finally shipping, the vast majority of smartphones sold feature ARM based SoCs. If all mainstream client computing moves to smartphones, and Intel doesn't take a dominant portion of the smartphone market, it will be left in the difficult position of having to support fabs that no longer run at the same capacity levels they once did. Without the volume it would become difficult to continue to support the fab business. And without the mainstream volume driving the fabs it would be difficult to continue to support the enterprise business. Intel wouldn't go away, but Wall Street wouldn't be happy. There's a good reason investors have been reaching out to any and everyone to try and get a handle on what is going to happen in the Intel v ARM race.

To make matters worse, there's trouble in paradise. When Apple dropped PowerPC for Intel's architectures back in 2005 I thought the move made tremendous sense. Intel needed a partner that was willing to push the envelope rather than remain content with the status quo. The results of that partnership have been tremendous for both parties. Apple moved aggressively into ultraportables with the MacBook Air, aided by Intel accelerating its small form factor chip packaging roadmap and delivering specially binned low leakage parts. On the flip side, Intel had a very important customer that pushed it to do much better in the graphics department. If you think the current crop of Intel processor graphics aren't enough, you should've seen what Intel originally planned to bring to market prior to receiving feedback from Apple and others. What once was the perfect relationship, is now on rocky ground.

The A6 SoC in Apple's iPhone 5 features the company's first internally designed CPU core. When one of your best customers is dabbling in building CPUs of its own, there's reason to worry. In fact, Apple already makes the bulk of its revenues from ARM based devices. In many ways Apple has been a leading indicator for where the rest of the PC industry is going (shipping SSDs by default, moving to ultra portables as mainstream computers, etc...). There's even more reason to worry if the post-Steve Apple/Intel relationship has fallen on tough times. While I don't share Charlie's view of Apple dropping Intel as being a done deal, I know there's truth behind his words. Intel's Ultrabook push, the close partnership with Acer and working closely with other, non-Apple OEMs is all very deliberate. Intel is always afraid of customers getting too powerful and with Apple, the words too powerful don't even begin to describe it.

What does all of this have to do with Haswell? As I mentioned earlier, Intel has an ARM problem and Apple plays a major role in that ARM problem. Atom was originally developed not to deal with ARM but to usher in a new type of ultra mobile device. That obviously didn't happen. UMPCs failed, netbooks were a temporary distraction (albeit profitable for Intel) and a new generation of smartphones and tablets became the new face of mobile computing. While Atom will continue to play in the ultra mobile space, Haswell marks the beginning of something new. Rather than send its second string player into battle, Intel is starting to prep its star for ultra mobile work.

Haswell is so much more than just another new microprocessor architecture from Intel. For years Intel has enjoyed a wonderful position in the market. With its long term viability threatened, Haswell is the first step of a long term solution to the ARM problem. While Atom was the first "fast-enough" x86 micro-architecture from Intel, Haswell takes a different approach to the problem. Rather than working from the bottom up, Haswell is Intel's attempt to take its best micro-architecture and drive power as low as possible.

Platform Retargeting & Platform Power
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  • Kevin G - Monday, October 08, 2012 - link

    The market is less about performance now as even taking a few steps backward a user has a 'good enough' performance. It is about gaining mobility which is driven by reduction in power consumption.

    Would Apple want to compete with Intel's Xeon's line up? No and well, Apple isn't even trying to stay on the cutting edge there (their Mac Pro's are essentially a 3 year old design with moderate processor speed bumps in 2010 and 2012). If Apple was serious about performance here, they'd have a dual LGA 2011 Xeon as their flagship system. The creative and engineering types have been eager for such a system which Apple has effectively told them to look elsewhere for such a workstation.

    With regards to virtualization, yes it would be a step backward not to be able to run x86 based VM's but ARM has defined their own VM extensions. So while OS X would lose the ability to host x86 based Windows VM's, their ARM hardware could native run OS X with an iOS guest, an Android guest or a Windows RT guest. There is also brute force emulation to get the job done if need be.

    Moving to pure ARM is a valid path for iOS and OS X is a valid path for Apple though it is not their only long term option.
    Reply
  • Penti - Tuesday, October 09, 2012 - link

    You will not be able to license Windows RT at all as an end-user. Apple has no interest what so ever to support GNU/Linux based ARM-VMs.

    I'm sure they will update the Mac Pro the reason behind it is largely thanks to Intel themselves. That's not their only workstation though, and yes performance is important in the mobile (notebook space), performance per watt is really important too. If they want mobile workstations and engineering type machines they won't go with ARM. As it does mean they would have to compete with Intel. They could buy a firm with an x86 license and outdo Intel if they were really capable of that. ISA doesn't really matter here expect when it comes to tools.
    Reply
  • baba264 - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    "Within 8 years many expect all mainstream computing to move to smartphones, or whatever other ultra portable form factor computing device we're carrying around at that point."

    I don't know if I am in a minority or what, but I really don't see myself giving up my desktop anytime soon. I love my mechanical keyboard my large screen and my computing power. So I have to wander if I'm just an edge case or if analyst are reading too much in the rise of the smartphone.

    Great article otherwise :).
    Reply
  • A5 - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    8 years is a loooooong time in this space, and yes you (and most people here) are in the minority.

    Notebooks have been outselling desktops for several years, and in 2011 smartphone shipments were higher than all PC form-factors combined. It's pretty clear where the big bucks are going, and it isn't desktop PCs.
    Reply
  • flamethrower - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    In 8 years you'll have 50-inch OLED TVs on your walls. What's going to drive them? Possibly a computer integrated into them. Reply
  • Peanutsrevenge - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    We'll just be using large screens, keyboards and mice wireless connected to our ultra portable devices.

    The desktop will likely still exist for people like us who frequent this site, however it's role will be far more specialised, possibly more as our personal cloud servers than our PCs.
    Reply
  • yankeeDDL - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Wow. Thanks for the excellent article: I really enjoyed it.
    The thought of having a processor of the power level of Ivy bridge in my mobile phone blows my mind.
    Honestly though, I really can't see how the volume of CPUs for desktop PCs and servers is going to drop so dramatically, that Intel will need the volume generated by mobile, to "survive".
    Yes, of course more volume will help, but 8 years from now, even if the mobiles will have such kind of computational power, I would imagine that a Desktop would have 10~20x that performance, as it is today.
    It's true that today's CPUs are typically more powerful than the average user ever needs, but raise the hand who wouldn't trade his CPU for one 10x faster (in the same power envelope) ...
    That said, 10W still seems like a lot to fit in a mobile: who knows the power consumption of high-end mobile CPUs today? (quad-core Krait CPU, for example, or even Tegra3)
    Reply
  • dagamer34 - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Intel's real problem is that the power needed for "good enough" computing in a typical desktop CPU came a couple of years ago Nd is rapidly approaching in mobile. With more and more tasks being offloaded to the cloud, battery life is becoming a stronger and stronger focus.

    What's sad is that because AMD isn't the major player it once was, Intel has allowed it's eye off the ball, revving Atom with only minor tweaks and having a laissez faire approach to GPU performance. It's only been recently when mobile has started to dominate in the minds of consumers and Intel's lack of any major design wins (the RAZR I doesn't count) which has forced Intel to push as hard as it is now.
    Reply
  • sp3x0ps - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Where is the iPhone 5 review? I need details!! arghh. Reply
  • Demon-Xanth - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Atom was targeted to UMPCs, but quickly took over low power embedded systems who don't need much power but do run Windows. Reply

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