A new Arm deal means your next mobile device could use a next-gen Intel SoC

Intel and Arm just struck a deal that could change the way future mobile devices are powered, not to mention a whole slew of digital devices in every category of use.

While Intel has long made the best processors on the planet for PCs and laptops,  it hasn’t been as involved in low-powered, lightweight semiconductors like those used in phones, tablets, and IoT devices like smart speakers. That looks to change with a new agreement between Intel Foundry Services and Arm Ltd.

British semiconductor firm Arm has been licensing out its processor designs to major industry players like Apple and Qualcomm for use in mobile phones and tablets for many years now, thanks to Arm’s emphasis on mobile energy efficiency over the raw performance normally seen in desktops. But Intel and Arm have  steered clear of each other, making today’s joint announcement a major development in the semiconductor space.

At the heart of the design technology co-optimization (DTCO) the two companies agreed to is Intel’s 18A process, which is the last chip fabrication process in Intel’s aggressive 5-year road map that began with Intel Alder Lake. That chip was fabbed on the 10nm Intel 7 process.

Intel 18A is scheduled for risk production starting in the second half of 2024, with chips co-designed with Arm presumably starting to roll off the line by the end of that year.

“There is growing demand for computing power driven by the digitization of everything, but until now fabless customers have had limited options for designing around the most advanced mobile technology,” Pat Gelsinger, CEO of Intel Corporation, said in a statement emailed to TechRadar. 

“Intel’s collaboration with Arm will expand the market opportunity for [Intel Foundry Services] and open up new options and approaches for any fabless company that wants to access best-in-class CPU IP and the power of an open system foundry with leading-edge process technology.”

Intel’s finally getting into the foundry-as-a-service business

Intel is a semiconductor industry giant, as well as being something of the elder statesman of processor fabrication. The late Gordon Moore, for whom Moore’s Law is named, was one of Intel’s founders more than half a century ago, and Intel has been on the cutting edge of computer processing technology pretty much since the integrated circuit’s inception.

But Intel has had some major competition in recent years, and not just from archrival AMD. TSMC and Samsung are both major chip foundries that supply everyone from Nvidia and AMD to Apple and Qualcomm. Intel, in a lot of ways, has been something of the odd duck out by fabbing its own chips in-house and pretty much exclusively its own chips.

With this new deal from Arm, Intel is taking a major step into servicing the foundry needs of “fabless” industry partners in its own right. Fabless is a polite way of saying companies like Arm, AMD, and Apple that design computer processors in house, but have to go elsewhere to have chips fabricated, increasingly by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).

By opening up its foundry services and letting companies bring their own chip designs to Intel for fabrication on Intel’s 18A process, the company is staking a major claim in a market that effectively only has two other players, TSMC and Samsung. Given Intel’s industry position, it is probably the only company on Earth right now that could credibly compete with TSMC and Samsung.

All of this will hopefully mean significantly cheaper chips as competition does its thing. It remains to be seen what this new partnership develops in the coming decade, but Arm is certainly not going to be the last company to come knocking on Intel’s foundry door in the years ahead.

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