Intel finally announced earlier this week its answer for branching into true low-power embedded applications – the Quark SoC. Quark is Intel's first product for low-cost, small form-factor embedded markets, which often prioritize power consumption and footprint over performance. Though Intel faces tough competition in the embedded space from a variety of players, the growing opportunity generated by the pervasive Internet of Things will be large enough for Intel to carve additional share outside traditional PC and enterprise-computing markets.
Quark is Intel's first synthesizable CPU core, allowing others to incorporate third-party silicon IP into the SoCs Intel will manufacture. Technical details are scarce, but what we do know is the demonstration chip presented at IDF 2013 is x86 compatible, measures 1/5th the size and 1/10th the power consumption of the Atom processor, and contains a single-core, single-thread 32-bit architecture.
The market opportunity for Quark is great. Connectivity is creeping into ever-more devices and applications, including the new SoC’s initial targets such as industrial automation, medical, and wearable devices. Though prospective customers can integrate various WiFi/cellular radios to enable connectivity, software remains the chief barrier to successful implementation. Intel hopes to mitigate development efforts through incorporating a software stack that includes security, manageability, and connectivity features. No word yet on supported standards.
However, IP-licensor ARM and processor suppliers such as Freescale and Qualcomm already have a firm foothold in several embedded markets. The ARM architecture has flourished in low-power designs, and now intends to challenge Intel in high-density server and high-performance computing markets. Quark is poised to compete with ARM’s Cortex-M series processors, the most used ARM architecture cited by over half of respondents from our 2013 Embedded Hardware End User Survey. The rich ARM ecosystem offers vast resources and integration support that no single company can completely encapsulate.
While there is no off-the-rack market for Quark, OEMs and other embedded processor end users will greatly value the advanced production process and additional features. The limiting factor of Intel’s success will be price. The company isn’t accustomed to selling lower-cost units beyond its Atom line – which are still too costly for many high-volume embedded applications beyond tablets and handsets. Nevertheless, we believe Intel’s strong brand and ample resources will allow Quark to penetrate several new embedded market segments once production begins later this year.