Intel said it will make the Quark architecture open. But just when and how it does that, and releases product details, is unclear.
Peter Glaskowsky, a veteran processor analyst, said Quark could be a 386-vintage subset of the x86 for which patents are now expired. "They could be making a virtue of necessity," Glaskowsky said.
Alternatively, it could be the world's smallest 64-bit x86. In this scenario Intel could make the point the future belongs to an all 64-bit world -- a compelling argument coming the same day Apple announced it is moving the iPhone to 64-bit addressability with an iPhone 5S coming this year with a native 64-bit A7 processor, kernel, and software stack.
Having 64-bit capability would differentiate Intel's Quark from a world of 32-bit ARM M-series microcontrollers as well as a host of proprietary architectures from Microchip, Renesas, and others. In this scenario both Intel and Apple use 64-bit addressability as a performance edge against an entrenched ARM world.
A 64-bit address space can bolster performance even if it is not used to enable more the four Gbytes of main memory a 32-bit part can address, said Glaskowsky. A wider architecture can enable better communications and video processing without exceeding the 4 GByte limit, he noted.
One wrinkle for Intel in this scenario is whether AMD has any outstanding patents on a 64-bit x86. It pioneered the architecture with its Opteron later emulated by Intel's processors.
Krzanich said Intel has been working for 20 years to handle the diversity of parts SoCs such as Quark promise. The company cut fab throughput time 60 percent over that period, he said.
Today Quark is more sizzle than steak. Whether it can face down an established world of microcontrollers and whether Intel can handle the kind of low-volume, high-mix foundry business it implies are questions yet to be answered.
From IDF in San Francisco Kevin Facinelli of Daikin McQuay dials into a Quark industrial reference board to query an HVAC system in Minneapolis.