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With all respect to Apple and the iPad, perhaps no companies have done more to shake up the IT industry over the last year than Nvidia and ARM Holdings.
And thanks to the explosive growth in the mobile device market, the two chip makers are enjoying a fruitful partnership that threatens the both world largest microprocessor company and the dominant desktop-server architecture: Wintel.
Speaking at Nvidia Analyst Day 2011 last week, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Haung offered his vision of high-performance Nvidia graphics pervading the IT ecosystem from the most powerful supercomputers to the smallest form factor mobile handheld PCs. Nvidia shares its ambitious, eventful roadmap -- as well as a heated rivalry with Intel -- with British design firm and suddenly close Nvidia partner ARM.
ARM's co-founder Dr. Herman Hauser last Fall made news by blasting Intel for following what he called "the wrong model" in the mobile phone space, and claiming that ARM's licensing business would bring about the end of the microprocessor industry -- and as a result, Intel's long-held dominance. Though that may have seemed far-fetched to some, at CES 2011 in January Nvidia's Tegra 2 mobile processor was featured in several tablets and smartphones from manufacturers including Motorola, LG and Samsung.
Meanwhile, Microsoft announced that its next Windows OS will support ARM-based processors manufactured by firms including Nvidia; and, finally, ARM and Nvidia offered plans to enter the server market with Project Denver. Both companies' ambitions, as a result, seemed more realizable and their shared enemy, Intel, seemed a bit more vulnerable.
Yet even as ARM's challenge to Intel in the microprocessor industry gained some credibility because of Microsoft, Intel at CES said it will offer support for Google's Android 3.0 OS along with several other operating systems in addition to the Windows platform. Not only did this represent an aggressive -- albeit reactive -- move by Intel to challenge ARM's 87 percent share of the mobile market, it appeared to represent a crack in the wall of the Wintel fortress, a rare bit of publically visible tension between two industry giants bound together in a long-term marriage.
"This is really about enabling a new class of hardware, new silicon partners for Windows and bringing the widest possible range of form factors to market," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in his CES opening keynote. "This is an important step for Microsoft because customers expect the full range of Windows functions in any device."