Intel and ARM: New leaders, same battle

May 14, 2013

FORTUNE -- Much has been made of the upcoming leadership transitions at chip rivals ARM (armh) and Intel (intc). But it’s unlikely that the battle plan will change for either side. Both companies chose long-time insiders to take the helm—Intel COO Brian Krzanich will become CEO later this week, and ARM’s Simon Segars, currently the company’s president, takes over in July. So it's hard to imagine sweeping changes in either camp. Besides, it's not clear that ARM, which licenses its chip architecture to the likes of Qualcomm (qcom) and Nvidia (nvda), is in need of massive transformation. Though much smaller than Intel, the British chip designer isn't dependent on the lackluster PC market. ARM-based chips power 95% of mobile phones, and the company is now trying to venture into new markets like lower-power servers. Fortune recently caught up with Segars, ARM's incoming CEO, to find out about his plans for the company, the rivalry with Intel and the state of Moore's Law.

FORTUNE: You’re often viewed as head-to-head competitors with Intel, yet you have such a different model. Is it fair to constantly compare you to them?

Segars: Intel is a semiconductor company; we are not. Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, Marvell, etc. are semiconductor companies. In the mobile device, the competition is between Intel and all those other guys. All those other guys use the ARM architecture and are dependent on us to keep that relevant. But at the business level it’s Intel competing against ARM’s customers. For our part we take that very seriously. It’s a competition for sockets among Intel and our licensees, and we can’t just sait there and say, "Sorry you lost that one." Because if those sockets are lost, then it impacts our volumes and our royalties. So we need to be sure that we keep developing great microprocessor technology to help support our customers in creating products which deliver the best user experience.

Intel’s greatest asset is its fabs and manufacturing power. What’s yours?

I think it’s the partnership base. You can have great technology, but the best technology doesn’t always win out. For us it’s been the combination of great technology deployed through the business model that has made ARM successful, and it’s helped people build innovative devices at lower cost. I think the benefit of that has been greater diversity in the silicon that’s enabled greater diversity in the end product. It’s about enabling choice so that as a consumer you can go into a store and go, “I’ll have that one.” You’ve got a lot of choice there because there is money available through the supply chain for innovation to happen at different points, unlike PCs where two people have controlled it and the person that makes PCs runs on 2% profit margin and can’t afford to innovate in anything other than which shade of grey the plastic is.

Are there changes that need to take place at ARM?

Under Warren’s [East, ARM's current CEO] leadership we’ve had an incredibly stable team. But over the last couple of years it’s no secret that a couple of executives who’ve been there a long time have left. The current team is different from the team that got us here. I’ve been there a long time. My challenge right now is making sure that the team continues the path forward that we’ve enjoyed the last couple of decades. There’s nothing structural about ARM’s business that says the model that we have doesn’t apply anymore. In fact what we have is even more applicable today as we face economic challenges and technology challenges. This partnership model is a great way of addressing this. So that doesn’t worry me at all, and the demand for semiconductors doesn’t worry me at all. It's about keeping it all going -- making sure that the leadership team at ARM is effective, that employees get where we’re going, that as the company grows we don’t lose the culture. These are not unique challenges to ARM.

What’s different about the conversation around Moore's Law today versus 10 or 20 years ago? (Moore's Law states that the number of transistors the industry can place on a computer chip will double every 18 to 24 months).

What’s different is that there’s enough history to say the technical challenges can get solved. What people now talk about is, now that we’ve solved them, is it economically viable to use the technology solutions. That’s what people are worrying about more now on the Moore’s Law conversation than they ever were. Previously it was about what are we going to do to shrink the transistors. The cost per transistors has gone down exponentially. Moore’s law isn’t a law, there’s no natural thing behind it. It’s a prediction that has held up. Now people are worried about does the cost per transistor start to go up, and if it does, what do you do about that. There’s plenty of research going on into alternate materials, carbon nanotubes, all these things are being worked on in a lab somewhere to keep scaling. But whether you can afford the solution at the end of the day is the challenge. I’m not worried about people saying, well unless the next generation comes along the world will end. There are plenty of ways to use the technology as it exists today in more and more creative ways.

Your current CEO is leaving at a rather young age, and Paul Otellini (Intel's outgoing CEO) is stepping down ahead of when everybody expected. Why do you think this is?

I can’t speak for Paul Otellini, but I’ve known Warren very well, and he’s been the CEO of ARM for 12 years, which is a long time to be a CEO. It’s clearly a demanding job. It is 24/7, and you fly a lot. At some point in anyone’s life you say, "You know, I’d like to go do something else for a while." Warren’s been doing this a long time. He wants to hand it over to someone else. We share a lot of common philosophies, but naturally we’re different people, we’ll have a different approach. I’ve got a little bit of an age advantage on him, and hopefully I can put up with lapping the planet for a few more years, and based on my knowledge of the company I can keep moving us in the right direction.

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