Why Intel and ARM Are Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

The semiconductor giant will allow customers to design competing chips in its factories.

Well, it finally happened. Intel INTC -0.43% got into bed with ARM. Or rather, Intel got into the fab business with ARM. Sort of.

Back in 2010, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor giant opened its fabs to other chip companies, enabling them to design their own products in its factories. At its annual developer conference on Tuesday in San Francisco, Intel took its services for “foundry customers” a step further, announcing it will also offer them the ability to develop chips based on an altogether different—and competing—architecture, ARM.

If you’ve followed Intel’s long-time insistence on its x86 chip architecture (and its long-time rivalry with ARM), you will appreciate the significance of this move. On the other hand, if you’ve been around the tech industry long enough, you will also know that cutthroat competitors often end up partnering with each other. Put simply, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Or at the very least, let your customers join ’em—and get paid in the process.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a win-win for both companies, even if it is a roundabout admission that x86 is no longer the only dominant chip architecture out there. For Intel, it can increase fab utilization rates, helping the company compete with big foundry rivals like TSMC and Samsung. ARM, meanwhile, can rest assured that every major fab now has the ability to develop ARM-based silicon. (SoftBank, which recently announced it will acquire ARM for a whopping $32 billion, is also likely to benefit.)

Intel has already announced several new foundry customers, along with its ARM-friendly news. These include LG Electronics and Netronome. What’s next? Will Intel start manufacturing its own chips based on the ARM architecture? Stranger things have happened in tech.

 

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