Intel Corp. , once the dominant designer and manufacturer of microchips at the core of nearly all personal and cloud computing, has for years been losing ground to competitors. Hardly a ragtag bunch, the opposition now includes trillion-dollar companies alongside countless startups, and it’s well on its way to wrecking Intel’s hegemony.
Apple Inc. recently declared an end to its use of Intel chips in Macs, which it adopted in 2006, and a switch to processors of its own design. With less fanfare, longtime Intel partner Microsoft Corp. put a custom chip in its Surface Pro X tablet PC, as an alternative to models running Intel’s chips. Google is already using chips from Qualcomm Inc. in its Pixel phone and others from Intel in its Chromebooks, and appears to be working on its own custom processors for both sorts of devices. Samsung Electronics Co. , meanwhile, has been designing its own chips for 20 years, though it continues to work with both Intel and Qualcomm.
These efforts have in common a need for ever-greater efficiency. Apple made a big deal this year about “performance per watt.” This measurement has obvious significance for battery-powered devices but is also important for cloud computing, which now accounts for 1% of global electricity use. To meet these needs, electronics manufacturers are opting for more customizable microchips at the heart of their devices, like engines developed specifically for the vehicle they’ll power.
The custom-chip leader isn’t a manufacturer, but a designer with technology in almost every mobile device, and more and more notebooks, desktop computers and cloud servers, as well: Arm Holdings. This Cambridge, U.K.-based company licenses its microchip blueprints to tech giants and hardware startups alike, more than 500 in all. Arm already has 90% of the market for processors that go into smartphones, tablets and laptops.