An in-depth look at the chip business throughout 2013 (and predictions for 2014)

The computer industry has come a long, long way. Vacuum tubes were scrapped long ago in favour of transistors. Mainframes are giving way to industry standard servers. And more recently, mobile devices using flash memory, ultra-low power processors, and communications chipsets have surged past x86-based PCs as the computing tools we depend upon most in our daily lives.

It used to be the case that when writing a year-end review for the consumer chip business, we'd simply note what Intel, AMD, and Nvidia had been up to, and throw a few bones towards a handful of other companies to round things off.

That's no longer possible. What mobile giants like Qualcomm, ARM, Samsung, and Apple have been doing with increasingly powerful System-on-a-Chip (SoC) platforms over the past 12 months is at least as important as Intel's track record. New areas of growth like wearable tech and the Internet of Things also point towards a "post-PC" world arriving a lot faster than we might have ever imagined.

That's not to say that x86-based PCs – and servers, professional workstations, supercomputers, and more – aren't still hugely important. They remain the workhorses in our daily computing lives, the powerful backbone underneath all the Internet and cloud services we enjoy on our mobile devices, and, though diminished, they’re still big revenue drivers for the companies that make them.

At any rate, this is our look back over the year in chips, in which we consulted with analysts Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy, Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates, and Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research, to review the most notable products, events, and corporate goings-on. We’ll start with our take on the mobile space first.

Mobile

Who was the semiconductor industry's king of mobile in 2013? At first blush, we'd hand the crown to ARM for another year. The British firm's licensable instruction set architectures once again dominated the mobile arena this year. ARM-based chips power Apple's iPhones and iPads, a huge number of Android phones and slates, and with the release of its first 64-bit instruction set, ARM is poised to make headway in PCs and servers as well over the next 12 months.

As for the companies designing those chips, let's just say that Qualcomm had a very, very good year. This is a company that owned the multiband, multimode 4G LTE chipset market all to itself for most of the year. With its leading-edge radio frequency (RF) chipsets matched by the company's latest Snapdragon 800 application and graphics processing SoCs, for makers of high-end smartphones and other mobile devices, the Qualcomm product portfolio was pretty tough to beat.

"The Snapdragon 800 line was launched in January at CES and it plainly dominated most of the high-performance smartphones for the entire year," Moorhead said.

As the year went on, Qualcomm did face some strong competition from the likes of Samsung, Nvidia, Apple, rising Asian semiconductor players like MediaTek, and perhaps most intriguingly, Intel.

Intel has soldiered on with its plan to beat back the ARM revolution with x86-based processors for mobile devices. The chip giant managed to make some headway in tablets and especially with 2-in-1s in 2013, releasing its 22-nanometre "Bay Trail" line-up of Atom processors in September to maintain its process technology edge over the competition.

It's been a very different story for Intel in the handset market, however. However, that could change going forward as the company's new management team has signalled strongly that the time for messing about in mobile is over at Intel. The first practical results of that strategic shift came with the fourth-quarter shipment of Intel's 4G LTE XMM 7160 modem, a direct competitor to Qualcomm's front-end RF solutions that will get another upgrade in 2014.

That could set the stage for the competition to really heat up between Intel and Qualcomm, according to Gold. When it does, Intel's new leadership will have to face off against a new boss at Qualcomm, which announced last week that president Steve Mollenkopf will replace long-time CEO Paul Jacobs in March.

"I believe 2014 will be the breakout year for Intel in mobile, starting with higher-end tablets and then making its way down into smartphones. But 2015 should be the year that Intel finally achieves the scale it needs by including full LTE capability into an SoC and catching up with the equivalent capabilities provided by Qualcomm," Gold said.

Nvidia and MediaTek are two more players that will compete with complete mobile solutions, according to our panel. In March, when Nvidia laid out its ambitious plans for its line of Tegra products, the chip maker pointed to a fourth-quarter release of its first SoC with an integrated modem, the Tegra 4i. The Tegra 4i has now been certified by carriers and the first devices using it are expected to be released in the first quarter of 2014.

MediaTek, meanwhile, is "leading the way towards the era of Chinese mobile chips," according to Gold. Long known as a provider of chipsets for feature phones, the Taiwan-based company has been beefing up its product line with SoCs and RF chipsets that push into the higher-end smartphone landscape, and Peddie specifically called attention to MediaTek's octa-core ARM-based processor as one of the significant product releases of 2013.

But perhaps it was Apple, not typically perceived as a leading-edge semiconductor firm, which made the boldest move of any mobile chip designer with its decision to go with ARM's 64-bit instruction set for the new A7 processor powering the iPhone 5S.

"The Apple A7 benchmarked like a beast and surprised everyone with its performance," Moorhead noted.

While the mobile devices arena can resemble the Wild West at times, Intel, Microsoft, and Moore's Law dictate that the world of PC and server chips should be a much more staid affair. But is it? Here are some of the notable developments over the past year demonstrating that this may no longer be the case.

PCs and servers

The elephant in the room for the industry is that the market for PCs is stagnant, and indeed has been for a few years now. Mobile devices have rushed in to fill the gap for sluggish PC sales, and computer makers are either responding or dying on the vine.

Intel's new Haswell chips with integrated Iris graphics "deliver huge performance and 10 hours battery life in a notebook," Moorhead noted, further building on the company's strategy of turning laptops into hybrid devices that can compete with ARM-based tablets in terms of battery life, mobility, and touch, while offering more horsepower under the hood.

That's one way Intel has tried to buoy the PC industry in difficult times. Another is to break away from the old Wintel alliance and embrace different software platforms – in the past year, Intel has cosied up to Google with chips optimised to run the Android and Chrome operating systems. The rumour that Google may be planning to return the favour by acquiring an ARM license and designing its own server chips just shows that competition is on the rise across all fronts (we discuss this further here).

More evidence of reaching across the aisle to better one's competitive standing is AMD, which bolstered its data centre portfolio with SeaMicro servers running Intel Atom chips thanks to a big contract from Verizon, validating its decision to acquire the microserver vendor, noted Moorhead.

AMD, long the second major steward of x86 to Intel, also solidified its position as one of ARM's premier partners for developing 64-bit ARM server chips for the data centre.

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are now designing their PC processors to be more like the SoCs that run smartphones and tablets. Peddie highlighted AMD's development of its Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) and maturing APU offerings – a winning combination of central and graphics processing that earned the company a trifecta of next-gen game console design wins with Microsoft's Xbox One, Sony's PlayStation 4, and Nintendo's Wii U in the past year.

Nvidia, meanwhile, has perhaps made the most varied effort to expand its reach beyond the PC, going "vertical and direct to customers" with a number of products, Moorhead said. The company plays in mobile with Tegra, has more presence than ever in the HPC and supercomputing arenas, is building out its GRID cloud infrastructure, and even released its own handheld gaming device, Shield, in 2013.

Peddie highlighted the graphic chip maker's design of its latest-generation "Kepler" graphics processing cores, which "allows them to sell one or 500 cores, and go into the core IP business."

For one giant in the computing industry, a decision to take a whole new approach to IP was made in 2013. In August, IBM threw open the doors for licensees to its Power PC-based hardware and software properties, and formed the OpenPOWER Consortium with Nvidia, Google, and others to promote the flagging microprocessor architecture for back-end systems in an effort to better compete with Intel and ARM.

IBM followed up that move by acquiring an ARM license of its own to develop custom networking systems and the following month, opened up its Watson supercomputing platform to developers as well.

Sadly, Gold characterised IBM's last-ditch Power push as "more of a desperation measure than a true initiative, as the marketplace has largely passed the Power PC architecture by. IBM will continue to support it and use it to push the edge in process technology, which it is required to do to keep many of the non-captive chip producers (e.g. GlobalFoundries) competitive."

A chip in every basket

Computing has certainly come a long way. We've already reviewed some of the most impactful developments in the chip industry, and barely scratched the surface of what happened in 2013.

Away from many consumer's field of vision, companies like Audience, which makes mobile voice and audio-processing chips based on the human hearing system, are quietly advancing processor technology in ways that make our lives easier, more efficient, and pleasurable.

Computer chips are now instrumental components of our TVs, our cars, our home security systems and appliances, and more. And integrated circuits are poised to invade even more of the everyday objects that surround us and adorn us, which is why Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, Google, and others are racing to develop platforms for wearable tech and the Internet of Things (IoT).

We all know about Google Glass, the wearable computer that was revealed in 2012 and hit the US in limited but high-profile volume this past year. Given a publicity nudge by Glass, wearable tech of all sorts began to spark the public's imagination in 2013.

Smartwatches like the Pebble, Samsung Galaxy Gear (pictured right), and Qualcomm Toq have probably captured the most attention. But we've also seen fitness-friendly wearables, chip-equipped clothing, and even a proposal for a computer-assisted "smart wig."

In conjunction with prospects for IoT market growth, that's put the onus on chip designers to beat a path to the market with hardware to support whatever comes next. Broadcom has been one of the most notable movers in this direction, going after the automotive market with gusto. It recently beefed up its Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices (WICED) platform with Bluetooth Smart support to go with a tiny ARM Cortex M3 application processor integrated with RF circuitry.

Broadcom CEO Scott McGregor hit the road this summer to evangelise for wearables and the IoT, but he's not the only one out pounding the pavement. Doug Davis, the head of Intel's recently formed Internet of Things Solutions Group, recently told us that the increasing proliferation of sensor and processing hardware throughout our living environments has Intel concerned about the security of the gateway between all of those data-gathering devices, and the big data-crunching cloud infrastructure behind them.

Intel's big play in the IoT and wearables space is its new line of extreme low power embedded products, announced in September as a "sub-Atom" line of chips called Quark. The chip giant's expertise in controlling, securing, and managing data flow across hardware stacks could give it an edge going forward, Gold said.

"Lower in the food chain than Atom, Quark signals a commitment by Intel to go after the controller and Internet of Things market, and compete more completely with ARM, and even MIPS. The ability to port existing x86 code to a low-end controller chip may give it an advantage. And it completes a top to bottom chip strategy for Intel with Core, Atom, and now Quark," he said.

Could a post-PC, IoT world have Intel square in the middle of it – déjà vu all over again? Companies like Broadcom and Qualcomm, which has its own upcoming line of products for "connected home" devices called the Qualcomm Internet Processor (IPQ) platform, will surely have something to say about that – but sometimes the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

Predictions for 2014

Earlier this week, IBM released its annual "5 in 5" predictions for the technological innovations set to change our lives over the next five years. But what's going to happen in just the next 12 months?

Let's take a look at what some of the biggest players in the semiconductor industry believe will happen next year. Here are the trends, products, and developments that the folks from Broadcom, Intel, and AMD said we should keep an eye on in 2014.

Broadcom

Wearables on the rise: Broadcom believes that this will be the year that establishes the wearables industry, with multiple products across several market categories. New chips "will provide the computing and low-power needs for wearable products, clothing, and sensors that connect and transfer data to smart mobile devices and the cloud," the company said.

Connected cars: By 2025, 100 per cent of vehicles will be "connected," according to Broadcom. "With a faster-than-expected engineering push around autonomous vehicles underway, the evolution of car connectivity has gained sharp momentum. Hardware innovation will continue to be a key trend in 2014, particularly around connectivity with mobile devices," according to the chip maker, which also pointed to Ethernet technology growing out "from luxury models to a broader range of vehicles at moderate price points."

The software-centric network: Broadcom figures that deployments of software-defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) will accelerate over the next year. "Software's role in orchestrating network functions will continue to become more important and the network OS will evolve to become like a Linux server OS – extensible and rich with developer tools and key features such as diagnostics and automation," the company said. Broadcom recently announced a server-class ARMv8-A multi-core processor architecture and a partnership with ARM to define and develop an open ISA-independent NFV software environment.

The proliferation of UltraHD: "With the average UltraHD TV set price dropping more than 50 per cent in 2013 and more content becoming available in 4K resolution, 2014 will be the year 4K makes the primetime in the form of a live broadcast of one of many major global sporting events. The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics will be driving forces to bring UltraHD content into the home," Broadcom said.

Wireless charging: Broadcom believes that technology, specs, and trends are converging to "drive resonant technology into the mainstream." Resonant wireless charging "will allow consumers to drop multiple products at any angle on a pad and charge them simultaneously," the company said, adding that IHS iSuppli projects rapid growth for shipments of wireless power enabled devices, from just 5 million units in 2012 to close to 100 million by 2015.

Intel

Wearing your tech: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich imagines a day "when wearable devices are with us 24/7," but notes that "[w]ith the amount of data, information, and personal content that will be exchanged, security will become even more important." That has futurist Genevieve Bell, director of user experience research at Intel, predicting that in 2014, government and regulatory activity around the globe will focus "around things like privacy, security, identity, and reputation" as our digital lives become more intrinsically linked to our real-life activities via ever-present, always-on, wearable technology.

Getting healthier: Intel president Renee James isn't predicting a cure for cancer in 2014, but she is betting that "[d]uring the next era of personal computing, the biologic problem shifts to a computational problem in the treatment of cancer. Computing doesn't get any more personal than when it saves your life."

Education endeavours: Intel predicts that governments and other parties will work to extend digital literacy programs "beyond school education," particularly in emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere, via programs like the chip giant's Intel Easy Steps for adult communities.

The rise and rise of Asia: Intel is banking on Asia's continued growth as a consumer market and centre of technological innovation. "Asia is the heart of global technology innovation, driving technological change that is helping to improve the lives of people around the world," said Intel Capital China managing director Richard Hsu. In 2014, the chip giant expects even poor, rural areas in the region to grow from a one-cell phone-per-village distribution, and next year we’ll see "multiple devices reach beyond the Tier One and Two areas as governments and industry push for higher connectivity across emerging countries."

AMD

APUs ascendant: Computer chips incorporating both central processing and graphics processing capabilities will "dominate all consumer devices in 2014," pushing CPU-only chips into "a niche," according to Saša Marinkovic, technology manager of AMD's Client Business Unit.

Custom-built tech: On the enterprise side of things, Marinkovic sees the trend towards customising software for a company's needs gaining strength, which will also propel demand for more semi-custom chips.

High-res takes over: "1080p will be the dominant gaming resolution for PCs, meaning both desktops and laptops, as well as smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles, while 4K resolution TVs will be adopted by all major TV and monitor makers, and 4K content will move into mainstream," Marinkovic predicted.

Natural is as natural does: For a long time, the industry has been talking about the promise of a natural user interface incorporating things like voice, gesture, and movement sensing and processing. So far, nobody's developed the "killer" natural user interface app, but Marinkovic thinks 2014 will be the year this happens.