The faster refresh cycle is the fruit of investments ARM made a few years back to help it stay ahead of Intel, its primary competitor, McCarron said. Intel's smartphone chips are used in only a few handsets, but two years ago the company said it would upgrade its mobile chips faster in an effort to break ARM's dominance.
Intel year released new Atom chips code-named Merrifield and Moorefield, and earlier this year it shipped chips code-named Sofia for low-end smartphones. The Sofia chips were made in conjunction with Chinese company Rockchip, which has experience turning around processor designs in a matter of months, McCarron said.
Next year Intel will ship a high-end Atom chip called Broxton, which has a modular design that allows Intel to modify the chip and deliver updates at a faster pace. Broxton supports Intel's larger plan to deliver products that can be customized more easily, making its model more similar to that of ARM.
For now, the intense competition has resulted in new chips coming to market more quickly, but designing and manufacturing chips is a complex business, and it remains to be seen how long the yearly upgrade cycle will continue.
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