...with two major handset manufacturers, Lenovo and Motorola, announcing phones based on Intel processors. Intel, to back up its move into mobile and meet the current demand for energy-efficient chips, is focusing on developing its own low-power architecture. Next year it will launch its Haswell processor, a chip whose draw will be as low as 8W and which Intel claims will consume up to 41-percent less power than its predecessors.
There is a school of thought that, as Intel continues to focus on lowering power consumption of its chips, it will close the power gap between itself and ARM – removing ARM's ace card in mobile computing and its hopes for breaking into the server space.
And while Intel pushes down power consumption, ARM is moving in the opposite direction with some of its latest chips, such as the smartphone, notebook and server-focused A15, which consume more energy than other ARM models in the pursuit of better performance.
Nick Dillon, senior analyst in Ovum's devices and platforms team, believes Intel will face a struggle to make headway against ARM in the mobile market, given how many handsets are built using ARM-based chipsets.
"The ARM chipsets have it pretty well sewn up, for the mass market especially, and there's no real demand from the hardware manufacturers for any other alternative," he said.
"We're moving onto higher-power processors that play to Intel's strengths better, but at the same time those handset manufacturers are going to be very well embedded with ARM — a lot of the optimisations on the hardware and software side are around ARM. It's that classic disruptive technology that comes in underneath and has matured over time and now does the job at a lower price and greater efficiency."
ARM's Muller argues that ARM can retain a technical advantage at the low-power end of the market. But, more importantly, he believes that ARM's key advantage will come from the diversity of its ecosystem: ARM licenses its chip designs to hundreds of semi-conductor companies, which build that design into their own chips before selling them into a broad spectrum of markets. Markets – be it for servers or mobile computing – are better served, says Muller, by the innovation of hundreds or thousands of companies than by the smaller ecosystems of its competitors.
"The reason that ARM's been successful has more to do with the business model than the technology" — Mike Muller, ARM
"The reason that ARM's been successful has more to do with the business model than the technology. [By] licensing a number of different chip companies to do design we have diversity of competition within the ecosystem.
"I don't believe that any one company can design all the chips on the planet. You need to have different people, different specialisations and expertise to scale from little microcontrollers to supercomputers. The business model provides the diversity and that diversity is one of the reasons the ARM ecosystem has become so strong."
Muller claims that ARM's entry into the server market could bring similar diversity to the datacentre, with partners offering systems whose architectures are tuned for specific uses out of the box, be that supporting a search engine or serving SaaS.
Gartner's Mushell points out that while ARM's partners might be able to build many different server chipsets, each targeting a different type of server workload, the difficulty would lie in generating a market for each.
"ARM server folks — Calxeda, Applied Micro, AMD — will make many different chips in the microserver market. The big question is: which one of the them will hit the mother lode?" he said.
"With a market of nine to 10 million servers you've got to turn over a significant amount of that to make it a meaningful market for yourself. You've got to target a sweet spot, a big customer, with a big application, with a big need for reduction. All those stars need to line up in your favour at the same time."
What could count in Intel's favour is its control over the chip manufacturing process. Over the course of decades making chips in its foundries Intel has managed to achieve the highest yields for its chips in the business. It also has direct control over improvements at its chip fabs, while ARM has to rely on innovations by its chip-making partners like TSMC, Samsung and Global Foundries.
Muller said that Intel does have the lead in manufacturing technologies "on some levels" but that when it came to manufacturing low-power, low-cost chipsets ARM's partners like TSMC can ramp to volume more effectively, because "that's what they do for a living".
However any advantage that Muller perceives for ARM and its partners over Intel in manufacturing low-power chips is not guaranteed to remain in place as Intel shifts its manufacturing process to produce more low-power chips like Haswell.
What about ARM's core market? Where next for ARM in the smartphone and tablet space? With the latest smartphones able to stream high definition video and push around 3D graphics with relative ease – will demand for mobile performance tail off?
Not so argues Muller, who believes that users will demand more processing muscle from their handsets as we move from prodding and poking mobile computers to talking to them and even more exotic forms of interaction.
"The PC market seemed to reach some sort of plateau in performance. People went 'My PC is good enough'. I don't think we're anywhere near there yet in mobile phones," he says.
"There are a whole loads of use cases, different ways of doing UI when freed from that keyboard and mouse paradigm.
"Voice recognition is an obvious use case on phones. Could you make that a lot better? Yes, but that requires more compute. The augmented virtual reality stuff that people do with phones? That could also get a whole lot better."
ARM is continuing to push the performance of its chips destined for the mobile market. Earlier this year ARM announced its 64-bit Cortex A50 chip series that it said will deliver up to three times the performance of today's top of the range smartphones.
Looking beyond mobile, Muller says that a big market opportunity for ARM is in the machine to machine (M2M) comms market once the internet of things of things takes off. The internet of things is a vision of the future where low-power, networked computer chips are embedded in everyday items, from lightbulbs to car keys to food packaging to door locks. Giving the objects around us the ability to communicate the likes of where they are and what they are doing, and also react to messages, opens up the possibility of locating a lost pair of glasses with an internet search or a shopping basket that suggests healthier alternatives to your purchases.
Muller sees a massive future role for ARM in providing embedded computer chips for the sensors and the network infrastructure needed to support the internet of things. An example is ARM's Cortex-M0+, whose small size and very low power-consumption is suited to use in the sort of tiny, sub-$1 embedded sensors that will be needed.
"The price point for the silicon is at a point where you could put the required intelligence in for marginal cost and the comms networks and infrastructures are starting to become pervasive," he says.
"It's starting to happen now," Muller adds, predicting a five-to-10-year build-up to it becoming a significant market for the IT industry.
"The PC market seemed to reach some sort of plateau in performance. People went 'My PC is good enough'. I don't think we're anywhere near there yet in mobile phones" — Mike Muller, ARM
"It's a really exciting market and people don't quite know what it is. People don't know what they are going to do with it, what are the services it will enable.
"It's like the early days of the internet, people were talking about stuff that sounded stupid and most of it was, and then other stuff appeared that you never thought of, that turned out to be what everybody wanted."
Whatever the future holds for ARM, Muller is braced for change. He was one of the 12 engineers who has been with ARM from the start, from when it was a barn on the outskirts of Cambridge with only one licensing partner to its name.
ARM's headquarters might be located in the same city but that's about all that remains the same. Today the company employs about 2,200 people worldwide, shipped 7.9 billion chips by its customers and last year reported £230m profit before tax.
"I sometimes still naively think I work for a small company. You used to know everybody, what they did and who their wives were. Now we occasionally have big company meetings and I think 'I don't know who half these people are. What do they do?'.
"It's become a completely different business. That's why it's stayed interesting because the problems today are completely different from the problems 20 years ago," Muller says.