Intel threatens ARM for first time with Rockchip deal

Will license SoFIA system-on-chip IP to Chinese partner to create products for low cost tablets

By Caroline Gabriel

Intel has thrown down its biggest challenge yet to ARM's mobile ecosystem, announcing an alliance with China's Rockchip to push x86-based chips into the mass market for the first time, in a bold break with its past models.

Rockchip is a fabless semiconductor manufacturer based in China and currently develops ARM-based mobile SoCs, mainly for low end devices. But now it will work with Intel to create an x86 product, and just as significantly, help sell it into its network of local customers and contacts. By the middle of next year, the new partners say they will launch an entry level, Intel-branded SoC for low end Android tablets. This will combine four Atom cores and an Intel 3G modem, and will fit into the US firm's SoFIA family, unveiled at Mobile World Congress.

SoFIA will use the Silvermont core and will be made in 22nm technology, and will be Intel's first offering with a fully integrated modem. With this Rockchip variant, it will have three members - the others are a dual-core/3G part, launching in the second half of this year, and a quad-core/LTE version, due in the first half of next year.

It seems that Intel will be providing the basic SoFIA SoC and then working with Rockchip's team to modify the design to create a quad-core derivative optimized for the target market. The result will be sold by both firms.

The approach is a departure for both companies, but shows Intel's greater willingness to adopt new models in order to expand its markets (as seen in its move to become a foundry). It will gain a better cost base and improved local ecosystem contacts through Rockchip.

There has always been a strong logic to Intel giving up the low end system-on-chip (SoC) as a lost cause and concentrating on premium devices which would require the performance of its architecture, and which would eventually replace its PC base - larger-screened tablets, ultrabooks, Chromebooks and so on. But the firm has clung to the goal of achieving mobile mass, and an important foothold in emerging markets, despite numerous setbacks. Indeed, the first smartphones to be powered by its silicon were low end designs from Indian vendors.

Now it is making a far more aggressive play for the biggest market of all, China, where Qualcomm, just last week, was showing off the latest fruits of its local alliances there. These center on its Qualcomm Reference Design, which provides low cost, out-of-the-box platforms for manufacturers to create handsets and cheap tablets easily and affordably. But just as importantly, they bring low cost Chinese players into Qualcomm's usually rarefied orbit - and Intel's Rockchip deal will aim to do the same.

More broadly, this sees Intel taking on ARM at its own game by allowing partners to modify its designs, even if it is - for now at least - stopping short of licensing its IP. There are no signs this is exclusive, so Rockchip will presumably continue with its existing ARM-based mobile ranges, but it will gain far greater differentiation over its various rivals by harnessing the rarely shared Intel technology.

Now that Atom has overcome many of its old problems with power consumption, it can be a viable platform for fully mobile devices, but it lacks the ecosystem of ARM - of course Intel is a huge power base in its own right, but not in mobile, especially outside the post-PC categories such as large tablets.

This could be the first step on the way to building an ARM-like family of partners to take its platform into all kinds of new markets which Intel finds it hard to penetrate directly, for all kinds of reasons of cost and history.

Intel has hinted at a similar change of direction for the internet of things, which similarly has completely different structures and cost bases from those to which the giant is accustomed. Quark has an "open architecture", with Intel offering "fully synthesizable" chips. These have hooks in the silicon to add others' IP blocks, to customize designs for specific tasks. But a bolder move, to license all the IP, could follow, in a world where IP and common platforms are the route to power and profit, not churning out every low margin chip and sensor.

"We are always looking for innovative ways to differentiate our product portfolio, and the first-of-its-kind collaboration with Intel helps us do this," said Min Li, Rockchip's CEO, in a statement. "The combination of Intel's leading architecture and modem technology with our leading mobile design capability brings greater choice to the growing global market for mobile devices in the entry and value segments."

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