Chip companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia, and AMD are all either planning or said to be planning another attempt at making Arm chips for the consumer PC market. Qualcomm is leading the charge in mid-2024 with its Snapdragon X Elite and a new CPU architecture called Oryon. And Reuters reported earlier this week that Nvidia and AMD are targeting a 2025 release window for their own Arm chips for Windows PCs.
If these companies successfully get their chips into PCs, it would mostly come at Intel’s expense. But Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger doesn’t seem worried about it yet, as he said on the company’s most recent earnings call (via Seeking Alpha).
“Arm and Windows client alternatives, generally, they’ve been relegated to pretty insignificant roles in the PC business,” said Gelsinger. “And we take all competition seriously. But I think history as our guide here, we don’t see these potentially being all that significant overall. Our momentum is strong. We have a strong roadmap.”
Gelsinger is mostly correct; mainstream Arm PCs have been available for over a decade, and none of them have put a dent in the laptop market despite Arm’s success in tablets and smartphones. Ideally, Arm-based PCs promise performance on par with x86 chips from Intel and AMD, but with dramatically better power efficiency that allows for long-lasting battery life and fanless PC designs. In reality, Arm chips made for Windows PCs haven’t delivered. Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon chip for PCs, the 8cx Gen 3 (also called the Microsoft SQ3), appears in two consumer Windows devices.
But there’s one glaring exception: Apple Silicon, the powerful and efficient chips that allowed Apple to dump Intel as a supplier. The last Intel Macs were replaced this year, though the most popular ones went away in 2020 and 2021. Apple’s corner of the personal computer market is relatively small, but it’s a corner that Intel is now shut out of.
The success of the Apple Silicon transition has just as much to do with software as hardware—the vast majority of software written for Intel Macs can run on Apple Silicon Macs completely unmodified, something that’s true to a lesser extent in Windows 11. But Apple’s success gives other chipmakers a reason to believe that they can succeed, too.
Even if Gelsinger is wrong, he’s trying to spin the rise of Arm PCs as a potentially positive thing, saying that Intel would be happy to manufacture these chips for its competitors.
“When thinking about other alternative architectures like Arm, we also say, wow, what a great opportunity for our foundry business,” said Gelsinger.
Guiding Intel into the foundry business has been Gelsinger’s overarching project since he took over as CEO in 2021. Right now, TSMC has an effective monopoly on cutting-edge chip manufacturing, making high-end silicon for Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD, Apple, and (tellingly) Intel itself. If Intel wants its chipmaking revenues to be able to replace the money it makes from selling its processors, it will have to catch up to TSMC’s manufacturing capabilities, and it will have to convince a whole bunch of other companies that Intel’s decade of execution problems is behind it.