At the Intel Developer Forum, I attended a talk by Silvermont (that's Intel's latest low power microarchitecture) lead architect and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Fellow Belli Kuttanna. Now, in addition to walking away very impressed with Mr. Kuttanna's sheer technical knowledge and ability to communicate that to a crowd, I also felt confident that Intel's mobile CPU cores would be best-in-class going forward.
Interestingly enough, I stumbled across a very interesting article written by Mr. Kuttanna himself titled "64 bits Matter as Mobile Computing Evolves." I thought it was a great piece that not only highlights that when it comes to the transition to 64-bit in mobile computing (and make no mistake, this transition will happen), Intel is in a very good position.
I want to take it a step further and point out that Intel really has a golden opportunity to capitalize on this "64 bit advantage" from both a hardware and a software standpoint. The window of opportunity is fairly narrow, but if Intel's software team can execute upon it, it could serve to turn the tides in the war against the ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) players like Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA).
64 Bit Windows Tablets: An Intel/Microsoft Advantage
When I dialed into the Bay Trail pre-briefing about a month ago, I remember industry analyst Nathan Brookwood asking the Intel folks about when Windows 8.1 tablets with 64-bit support (i.e. able to support >= 4GB of RAM) would be available. Intel's answer was that the hardware itself was 64-bit capable today, but Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) had not yet released a version of Windows 8.1 64-bit that supported connected standby (I guess they're too busy working on Windows RT).
Anyway, so by 1Q 2014, the tablets/convertibles with 64-bit enabled Windows 8.1 and the Intel Bay Trail processors will hit the shelves. These will be targeted at corporate/enterprise customers first (particularly as these customers are more likely to be willing to pay extra for 4GB of RAM, higher storage, etc.). While Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad is unique in that it will actually be the first tablets that support 64-bit hardware/software in tandem, Microsoft will likely be able to win over corporate customers not only due to 64-bit, but due to support of the full Windows 8.1 OS and attendant software (Android, Windows RT and iOS don't compare although Apple is doing a good job improving things on that front).
This could drive a rather dramatic shift toward Windows tablets in the enterprise space, as full 64-bit Windows 8.1 tablets could significantly simplify the lives of IT professionals everywhere. This means share gain for Intel and Microsoft in the tablet market.
64 Bit Android? Could Be Trickier
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) does not currently have a 64-bit (either ARM64 or X86-64) version of its very popular Android operating system today. However, the interesting thing is that since Intel has an absolutely gigantic team dedicated to Android software (~1200 engineers from what I last heard) it's not inconceivable that Intel could work to bring a 64-bit capable version of Android to Intel Architecture to market more quickly than the ARM guys (sans Apple). After all, Intel had to nearly move mountains to get an X86 (32-bit) version of Android out with full application support (that's lots of time and money spent to help developers port their apps), but it managed to pull it off.
However, the window of opportunity is small. If Intel can have a 64-bit version of Android ready to go with a 64-bit enabled "Merrifield" smartphone processor, then it would have a major opportunity to capitalize on this "64 bit" weapon against the other merchant SoC vendors. Imagine if, at least for a year or so, the only way that an Android phone/tablet vendor could sell "64 bit" would be to use an Intel processor?
However, while this sounds great on paper, I don't know when the other guys are going to put out 64-bit silicon. ARM's A57 is 64-bit capable, but given how long it took for the first Cortex A15 silicon to roll out (and given that ARM expects A57 to really hit the shelves in 2015), I remain skeptical. Qualcomm could beat the rest of the market to the 64-bit ARM punch, but the comments from (former) Qualcomm CMO Anand Chandrasekher about how 64 bit is a "gimmick" tends to imply that Qualcomm may be a ways off from a 64-bit version of its custom Krait cores (and then, of course, there's the whole software enablement thing, but Qualcomm's software team is good).
Intel has a lot of assets that it can leverage to unlock significant share gains in the smartphone/tablet spaces, and the whole "64 bit" marketing angle would be a wonderful way to win major phone/tablet sockets. Of course, it's not at all clear that Intel will drive a 64-bit version of Android for its ISA before the rest of the Android world catches on, and the odds are still good that "Merrifield" for phones will be forced to run in 32-bit mode.
However the advantage on Windows continues to grow, particularly for the enterprise tablet space. While this isn't Android, it could enable a shift to Windows tablets in the corporate space, which would be mutually beneficial to both Intel and Microsoft. Of course, Microsoft is still hell bent on making life difficult for Intel, so don't be surprised if Microsoft doesn't promote 64-bit Bay Trail tablets but does end up promoting 64-bit Tegra 6 tablets in 2016.
Disclosure: I am long INTC, NVDA. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.