The Atomic Breakthrough

Doubts (including my own) about the viability of Intel’s Silverthorne program have been rife. The company’s exit from ARM based microprocessors shows that the business environment in the low-power embedded market is pretty hostile. When you have more than 10 different vendors, led by high-volume manufacturers the likes of Texas Instruments and Samsung, the margins can get very unattractive. Intel’s re-entry however, is a show of confidence and a belief in the ultra-mobile segment as a market with a huge potential for growth. Having learned their lesson, Intel is now differentiating themselves from ARM by sticking with the general purpose, off-the shelf and widely compatible, x86 Intel Architecture.

It’s a great idea until you realise that the Atom processor isn’t really up to par with ARM based processors when it comes to the flexibility of having the ideal performance at the right power draw. x86 is just too rigid in terms of performance, continues to be power hungry and remains too expensive to implement. The foundation of my scepticism on Intel’s Silverthorne strategy is solely based on the fact that the right market for it (high performance, low power, and high margins) truly does not exist. I was wrong.

There is a growing “and very mobile” market where an Atom based PC just happens to slot right in. It is a segment where high performance is required, power draw isn’t much of a factor and price isn’t the primary concern. I am referring to the In-car PC. Bill Gates once envisioned a PC in every home. Now Intel is betting on having a PC in every vehicle – that’s a potential market of ~72 million annually by 2010. I know we’ve heard so much about this in the past but this time around the automotive industry is ready. Expect high-end/super cars to have built-in PCs in 2010 just to establish the concept and expect wider deployment after 2012. This information comes from actual product roadmaps and not just my prediction.

The industry's move to PC’s to be the system that integrates the ever increasing functionality of the modern car is driven by cost. Believe it or not, an in-car PC will be the cheaper alternative real soon once the volume kicks in. A singular system that drives the audio & video, sat nav, phone system, internet, HVAC, telemetry, security and customised vehicle settings is fast becoming cheaper than having all the different parts bought, assembled and wired individually. Simplification goes a long way in high volume automotive manufacturing and the building blocks that can integrate the PC with the automotive networking standard (CAN/LIN) is very mature. The advent of the Atom removed the cost hurdles that existed for a complete integration.

At the moment the competition is between the incongruent ARM-based system and x86 (Intel and VIA's low power CPU's). Intel is currently leading the pack with their fully developed embedded solutions with major vehicle OEMs and system integrators as partners. Even Microsoft has stepped up in pushing the Windows Embedded platform. They are now competing head to head with Linux (automotive grade) which is quickly gaining support to become the automotive standard. Either way, developers are finding it easier to design human-machine interface applications using the widely adopted x86 instruction set. The Atom processor is beginning to shape like the breakthrough product Intel has been looking for.