ARM ATTACKS

Posted Jul 2, 2011
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Intel is one lucky company. Its x86 architecture has been able to survive for what seems forever. Luck is not the only factor that comes into play, Intel has been aggressively tweaking the performance of its venerable architecture over the years so that it not only stays competitive it also comes out on top. But in the realm of all things technology what Intel has achieved is nothing short of miraculous. Up till now Intel’s x86 architecture is ubiquitous in desktop machines & note books all over the world. It has faced challenges from outside (the PowerPC architecture) and inside as well (the itanium architecture). In both cases it has been able to trump the competition no matter where it comes from. Heck even Intel’s main competition comes from a company that makes x86 compatible chips (AMD).

Up until now that is.

So what has changed that compels me to write this article? A lot actually; some of it overt, but a lot of it is happen at the sub-terrain level. What is brewing just out of sight that has the potential to threaten the might of Intel? The answer to that lies in a series of events that all culminate at the same junction.

The story begins with the revival of Apple. Once dependent on Microsoft cash to keep itself afloat, today Apple’s market capitalization exceeds that of Microsoft. What changed at Apple? For one thing Steve Jobs. The return of the founder of the company has brought nothing but good fortune to Apple.

Apple made its money selling its series of Apple and Macintosh line of computers. It was one of the fastest fortune 500 companies, but somewhere along the way it went too ‘radical’. It did things that were too futuristic for consumers to understand or even for Apple to understand itself. A series of high profile ‘failures’ (the Lisa for example) forced Apple’s board to fire Jobs. They brought in a more ‘straight’ thinker which made Apple profitable, for the time being, but Apple had lost its visionary and with him its vision. It was not until the return of Jobs that the company once again went back to high degree of profitability that it once had.

What did Jobs bring to Apple? Nothing apart from his ‘vision’. It was his vision that made Apple what it was and it’s his vision that makes Apple what it is today.The return of Jobs brought about the birth of iMac, shifting of the entire range of Apple desktop computers to Intel based microprocessors, and ipod and later the iphone and ipad. Neither of these gadgets was invented by Apple. What Jobs did at Apple was to take an existing model, apply his vision and show it to the public -who simply loved it. There was nothing fantastical about the first iMac, apart from its design and its operating system (OS). Apple did not invent the portable music device; Sony had done that long time ago and Creative was responsible for producing a disk- and cassette- less portable music device. But what both these companies lacked was vision. Sony is now a non-player in standalone music devices, ditto for Creative. The iPod in its various incarnations has virtual control of the market. Heck even Microsoft with its billions could not crack Apple’s dominance with its Zune device.

However the device that started the whirlpool that had Intel’s name written all over it (the ‘movement’ if you will) was the iPhone. A company (Apple) that had no presence in the cellular world came up with a device that everyone fell in love with. The one (hard) button iPhone started a revolution that wiped out giants like Motorola from the US cellular market. Everyone wanted an iPhone and every company wanted to copy the iPhone.
What made the iPhone so popular was not only its simplicity, but also the amazing hardware. Powered by a system on a chip design based on ARM technologies architecture, the iPhone (and later iPods based on similar hardware) could generate amazing visuals.

What makes ARM so attractive is its low power draw for given amount of performance. The architecture, as it stands today, has no hope of toppling an x86 chip and neither does it have or want to. ARM offers system on a chip design (SoC) to anyone who is willing to buy them. These companies are then free to use the architecture to pick and choose components that make the SoC.

What brought ARM to the lime light and started the simmering movement we (or at least I) see today is Google. Google, much like Apple is driven by vision rather than complacency. I assume that both of these companies needed vision to survive as both had mighty adversaries when they started off (IBM for Apple and the entire world for Google!). Google’s android operating system which is free to use has taken the cellular world by storm. From what was a very minor share even last year, Google activates more android headsets than Apple today. This is no small feat for a company that again (like Apple before) had no experience designing cellular technology. Its open model, the freedom for OEMs to add their own user interface and the ability of end users to root their devices as they please (as opposed to the closed architecture offered by Apple) has made Google the darling of the mobile world. Together with operating system updates that go by the name of Froyo, Cupcake and Gingerbread and the cutesy little green alienesque robot the temptation is too great to ignore.

Again it is ARM behind Android that makes the software work. Android requires more oomph from its hardware to do wonders and its wild popularity has made ARM more competitive in the area of performance than before. With Nvidia coming up with its Tegra2 architecture and other OEMS following suit, ARM powered devices today stand at a cross road. They have the hardware that can do 1080p video playback at a fraction of power draw required by x86 devices (both Intel and AMD included).

And it is not only video playback that these devices can do well. Their graphical prowess is nothing to balk at either. With Epic porting Unreal Engine for ARM powered Apple devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad) these devices are finally gaining inroads for professional gaming.

The final act of the movement that made Intel stand up and take notice once again takes us back to the realm of the fruity company –Apple. The release of iPad, (an overgrown version of the iPod if you will) has taken the consumers by storm. So much so that it has started to erode sales of notebooks and net books. Google has not been sleeping while Apple has been busy. It has its own cloud based computing net book and it has also released its own Android variant for tablets.  With almost every laptop (note and net books) being powered by an x86 processor, it is here that Intel will feel a prick. A prick that should be a wakeup call to all those interested in keeping the x86 architecture alive and well in the future.

So far Intel’s response has been muted to disappointing. Their ‘Atom’ line of processors are under-powered, over priced and consume too much power. AMD on the other hand has a marginally better response. They have a clear vision in their ‘fusion’ platform which does better at display as compared to Intel’s atom, but again it consumes way too much power to be relevant in a mobile world. But at least they have a vision where Intel simply has none or nothing that they are openly sharing.

Right now Intel is in a very comfy situation. It has produced record revenue quarters recently and it seems as if there is nothing to challenge its might. But things look most calm right before the storm. And the whirlpool is fast approaching Intel.

Why do I see a storm approaching? It is pretty simple really. With electronic devices fast losing their specific roles it won’t be long before there won’t be devices such as mobile phones. Note books and desk top computers will cease to exist. Mobile all in one device (AIOD) and cloud computing technologies, where you can log into your own ‘personal virtual space’ and do whatever you want from where you want will take over the world. Your AIOD will be able to interact wirelessly with cloud computing terminals seamlessly sharing data, be it work or entertainment. With gesture based input getting better and better, virtual keyboard and mouse gestures will make physical equalents redundant.

With ARM gaining enough momentum in mobility devices it will only be natural to extend their use. Their low power consumption together with lower cost will make them too tempting not to use. The meek SHALL rule the earth!

With Intel too busy concentrating on tweaking architecture not suited for mobile devices and insisting that they can get it to work is only providing their competitors with more time to penetrate an Intel dominated market. Ironically Intel itself had a mobile design called ‘Xscale’ which was based on ARM architecture. Intel sold this off to Marvell sometime in 2006.

AMD on the other hand has a better understanding of things. Their balanced approach to general computing and graphics power is more in tune with the coming future. The recently launched Llano mobile and desktop parts show how a balance between CPU and GPU power on one dye works so much better than just adding a ‘bog’ standard graphics core to a really power CPU core. AMD’s ultimate vision –to blur the identity between CPU and GPU cores will bring just rewards for them, but they will need to act quickly as Intel is not going to be sleeping forever!

Future computing needs will increasingly be mobile and compact. ARM has a massive lead over anyone else in this regard. It has products that cater to various price points and going forward its ability to deliver powerful devices which consume even less power (relatively speaking) will help it power devices that will do everything desktops are doing. Imagine if you will carrying your digital needs in a candy-bar device that allows work, play and entertainment as powerful as your current desktops, consoles and mobile net/note –books. The future, right now, is not blue, red but Teal. In cahoots with the fruit and tons of zeroes all the pieces are in place for a digitally integrated future.

It sure is nice to see benchmark after benchmark showing how strong Intel’s x86 architecture performs when coupled with power hungry devices like high end graphics cards and Kilowatt plus power supplies. What everyone seems to forget is that in the end, for a majority of consumers, these numbers do not matter. In the words of one Sony exec ‘Consumers do not care about how many times a disk player over samples, if it sounds good to them they’ll buy it’.

NOTE: This article is based on an expanded version of author’s own work that was selected for a local publication earlier this year.

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