Its not very often that the rules of the game in the hardware industry change, but they have changed considerably in one fell swoop. Intel recently entered into a partnerchip with Chinese-based Rockchip, a semiconductor manufacturer that currently makes their own ARM-based processors and a bunch of really nice 3G and LTE modems. The partnership will allow the two companies to collaborate on the design of an Intel Silvermont-based Atom processor with embedded 3G and LTE technologies for use in budget tablets. The chip will be price-competitive and with the Rockchip name involved, Intel finds its way into establishing itself in the Chinese market. But why is this development so very important for the x86 market?
Well, for one this is the first time in about ten years that a new player has entered into the x86 processor market. The only companies left with the licence are Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and VIA Technologies. That’s it. Out of the smorgasbord of companies in the 80s and 90s who were competing in the x86 market, only three players remain. VIA is oddly enough the only company who still has a licence, but is mostly irrelevant in today’s market.
Rockchip now enters the fray in a very different way here. Although it is able to access the x86 IP from Intel, it doesn’t actually have a licence to produce the processors. There isn’t even any mention of a x86-64 licence, which is doled out by AMD to anyone who makes the chips and wants the 64-bit extensions. What Rockchip adds to the partnership is their modem technologies as well as their in-house graphics chips, which will replace the HD graphics commonly found on consumer-targeted Intel chips these days.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in a statement that the move “is an example of Intel’s commitment to take pragmatic and different approaches to grow our presence in the global mobile market by more quickly delivering a broader portfolio of Intel architecture and communications technology solutions.”
It gets weirder from here. Not only do partners normally have to pay Intel and AMD for access to the x86 platform, a prerequisite for getting one of these licenses is that the fabrication partner needs to be one that Intel approves. In AMD’s case, this is Global Foundries and in Intel’s case, it’s their in-house fabrication plants scattered around the world. With the Rockchip partnership, the chips will be made outside of Intel’s premises by TSMC.
This changes the agreement that AMD and Intel signed and renewed in 2009 because if TSMC is now able to make x86 chips, AMD could elect to move some of their chip production to TSMC to make up for Global Foundries’ shortcomings. If you may recall, Intel threatened to take away the x86 licence from AMD when the company tried to get Global Foundries to manufacture their APUs and other processors, due to AMD splitting up the company and selling the foundry off to investors in Abu Dhabi.
If this doesn’t change things in AMD’s favour significantly, I’ll be surprised. TSMC’s 20-nanometer process ramps up later this year and is rumored to be already working with good yields. If AMD could move to that instead of waiting for improvements to Global Foundries’ bulk silicon process, that could give them much more room for maneuvering to meet the lower power consumption that consumers are asking both companies for.
Intel says that the partnership is not limited to using Silvermont hardware, as the partnership is strategic and will continue for the forseeable future.