IDC on Thursday predicted that ARM will capture a 15 percent share of the PC microprocessor market by 2015, as the company dials up development of processors for laptops and desktops.
ARM, which licenses processor designs to chip makers, currently has no presence in the PC processor market, which is dominated by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. But ARM could take market share as consumers reconsider PC options with the emergence of Microsoft's upcoming Windows OS, which will work on the chip designer's low-power processors, said Shane Rau, research director for computing semiconductors at IDC.
ARM in the past has said that entering the PC market was not a priority. ARM CEO Warren East in an interview earlier this year said the company will continue to focus on tablets and smartphones, which are growing in volume. East said that even if ARM entered the PC market, it would be "hugely expensive for frankly not much gain", considering Intel's market dominance.
ARM processors go into most tablets and smartphones, while Intel's first dedicated tablet chip, code-named Oak Trail, will appear in devices starting this month. IDC's prediction for the 2015 PC processor market share does not include ARM's tablet processors, which Rau said are derived from smartphones.
Microsoft's next OS, Windows 8, will work on both Intel and ARM processors, which could draw some interest for ARM-based laptops. Chip makers such as Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments have announced that their ARM-based chips will run Windows 8. Nvidia is developing chips code-named Project Denver that are targeted at mobile devices, PCs and servers. Qualcomm and TI have no plans to develop PC chips, and have said they will stick to making ARM-based chips for handheld devices.
But depending on opportunities, the chip makers could develop ARM-based PC chips, Rau said. Netbooks could help ARM penetrate the PC market and then scale to desktops, laptops and servers, Rau said. Servers with ARM processors could serve multimedia files or Web pages, and deliver ample performance while giving out less heat.
Netbooks based on ARM processors - called smartbooks - are already available, but Rau said the devices use smartphone processors and do not qualify as PCs.
ARM's dominance in tablets and smartphones could also extend to PCs, Rau said. Users of ARM-based tablets may opt for ARM PCs to run applications on both devices, and similarly, users with PCs running on x86 chips could be drawn to Intel tablets, Rau said.
Microsoft has provided a reason for ARM to consider entering the PC market, and the chip designer may have to invest heavily to attract developers to write applications for its architecture, Rau said. Most PCs use software based on the x86 architecture.
ARM will also have to enable key hardware improvements for chips to fit the profile of PCs, Rau said. Capabilities such as 64-bit addressing, fast internal connections and more memory and cores need to be designed into future ARM architectures to cope with the performance needed by PCs.
ARM in September announced the Cortex-A15 processor design, which can run at speeds of up to 2.5GHz and stretch to 16 cores in certain configurations. Cortex-A15 is a 32-bit design that can extend to 40 bits, and ARM officials have said they are considering 64-bit addressing in future processors. Tablets and smartphones with Cortex-A15 processors are expected to appear late next year or in early 2013.
Intel is also ratcheting up the heat on ARM with fast advances in manufacturing technology. On Wednesday, Intel announced a 3D transistor design that is faster and more power-efficient than two-dimensional transistors used in its current chips.
"If [ARM] does succeed, it will be because of proper execution of the features for PC end-users," Rau said.