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Netbooks and the Death of x86 Computing

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Freescale said Monday it would offer an ARM-based chip that could lead to a $200 Linux-based netbook, offering about twice the amount of usage on a single battery charge as Intel’s (s INTC) Atom processor allows. Freescale’s efforts are nothing new (only AMD (s AMD) has so far stayed above the netbook fray), but it did get me thinking about how Intel’s endless pushing of netbooks has, ironically, helped destroy the hegemony of x86 machines for personal computing.

Instead of being stuck with an x86 chip from Intel or AMD powering your computer, in the coming year you’ll see everything from netbooks to mobile internet devices running on ARM processors. Other machines will offload more processing to the graphics processor. This is great for consumers, who will soon be able to choose a computer that fits their lifestyle, much like a car buyer chooses between a minivan or sports car. Categories will likely evolve around the type of computing jobs someone plans for the machine, input devices, mobility and power requirements.

Our colleagues over at jkOnTheRun don’t believe smartphones are computers, but they’re discounting the fact that computing has moved beyond word processing and spreadsheets to encompass everything from social networking to commerce. As a reporter who spends her days typing more than 2,000 words, I love my full-size keyboard, but there are plenty of people who can survive using phones to access Twitter and their banking software. In the developing world, mobile phones are being used for everything from web access to setting pricing for their livestock. Computing has broadened far beyond the cubicle culture.

I only need to watch my dad, an electrical engineer, manipulate circuits in a CAD-style design program with his mouse all day to realize that a touchscreen device with intensive graphics processing power might be a better tool for his work. Freed from the x86 instruction set, it’s possible that computing in the coming years could become less of a one-size-fits all model and more personalized, while the use of other common processors such as GPUs or ARM-based chips can allow personalization without huge increases in the price of a gadget. The key will be fitting the pieces together in cost-effective products, and making sure users know exactly what their personalized machines can and cannot do.

In addition to more transparent marketing, there needs to be a focus on other input methods such as speech or even gestures, as well as a change in the way software is developed. Software companies have to port their programs to a variety of processors to keep up with the expansion of heterogeneous computing. Witness Adobe’s efforts to get Flash released on PCs (x 86 chips) and mobiles (ARM architecture) at the same time. And Adobe (s ADBE) has to address embedded efforts too, especially since electronics makers want to turn the TV into a web-connected device.

So, while chips such as those from Freescale may not end up in a consumer netbook, they could find a home powering a low-cost tablet for inventory managment. Instead of focusing on the ever-shifting definition of netbooks, perhaps we should be thinking about ways computing should and will change to fit our lives.

33 Responses to “Netbooks and the Death of x86 Computing”

  1. “an ARM-based chip that could lead to a $200 Linux-based netbook”
    how much cost atom and their motherboard? i bet is less than $100
    so if the only difference between a netbook and a smartbook is the processor and motherboard, cause the screen, memory, hard disk, etc will be the same how a smartbook could cost $100 less if atom platform cost less than that and ARM platform certainly wont be free.

  2. Well, if netbooks don’t make the web open up, cell phones surely will. I will party hard when I no long have to download the security nightmare of adobe flash to every OS I install so people can visit Youtube….

  3. ChipGrayBeard

    ‘x86’ computing hasn’t really meant anything for over a decade, maybe more. You are referring to CISC which all ‘x86’ cpu’s do now is just re-translate those to RISC. No one but compiler writers, and advanced game developers and the cpu engr’s need to care.

    What is going to be more interesting is the upcoming rise of the GPU in all spaces desktop, mobile, and netbook.

    Why it matters is that these processors were brought with a whole different methodology and problem set so they have way different performance characteristics that have a lot applications.

  4. This is an interesting problem. The move toward WinXP on netbooks likely has to do with the lack of easy-to-use and install Linux applications. People are familiar with WinXP and its applications.

    Linux-based Netbooks (and that would include ARM-based netbooks) really need the equivalent of an iTunes application store to succeed with mainstream consumers.

    • –quote-
      Linux-based Netbooks (and that would include ARM-based netbooks) really need the equivalent of an iTunes application store to succeed with mainstream consumers.
      -end quote-

      -begin sarcasm-
      Yeah if only Linux Operating systems had some kind of program built into them to help you manage installing and uninstalling software. It could even update the software for you. Some kind of of um . . . package manager. Oh wait they do.

      Maybe we could just rename it the software store. You know just to make windows and mac people feel at home. Go ahead & charge them money for the software. Alright I’m making my own distro. I’m calling it “Gimmie O$”
      -end sarcasm-

  5. Stacey Higginbotham

    Frank and Paco Bell, perhaps I would have been better off calling it the death of x86 hegemony, but my argument is that computing offered on other devices (and yes other OSes) will lead to more personalized computing. In the future not everyone will need a Wintel machine or even a powerful x86 machine running Linux on their desk. They might be better served with other devices.

  6. Frank Miller

    The “x86 computing” you refer to is defined primarily by the software that runs on it, i.e. Windows. Since the percentage of netbooks that run Windows has increased from 10% to 80% (according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal), it appears that Windows has become the preferred OS for these devices. As with other PC based form factors, Freescale has a long hill to climb since Windows does not run on their CPUs. Your assertion that x86 computing is on the road to death is therefore flawed. Until there is an OS that is accepted by the general user community in the same way that Windows is (and Linux does not fit that definition), x86 is in no danger.

  7. If other CPUs flourish it will have to be a win for Open Source. I use Linux as my primary desktop and the only thing I can’t get working correctly is closed source Adobe Flash, it crashes continuously. If you build an ARM netbook you better get used to begging Adobe to update their Flash player since you won’t have any control over it.

    On the other hand, with Open Source the manufacturers of the ARM netbooks can apply resources to fixing problems bothering their users.

    I used to work at Microsoft. I was once dumb enough to call tech support to tell them how to fix a bug I had put into the code. They never fixed the bug but they did send me a $200 bill for the tech support call. That incident made me switch to Linux.

  8. “…there needs to be a focus on other input methods such as speech or even gestures…’

    WIN! I would remind everyone of the subtle brilliance of Google voice search for the iPhone that caused controversy by access a secret, forbidden API function;

    …obviously if Apple wants gestures all to themselves, they see the value in it.Oh yeah, and FYI, Android has no such restrictions for apps using the accelerometer!

  9. What?

    Your dad using mouse with CAD?? Please give him a good wacom tablet. A touchscreen is not useful for that (I’m an electronics engineer myself), it has not enough precision. We humans don’t write with our fingers, we use pointers.


  10. Marco Almondine

    The chip companies do this every time – their CPU takes half the power, so they claim the computer will run twice as long. In a real product, the CPU takes less power than the LCD screen, and averages less than a quarter of the total system. Every other component in an ARM-based netbook would be about the same as in an Intel Atom-based competitor. Sure it’d be nice to halve the CPU power consumption, but switching to Linux just to add 15% to your battery life is not something most people are willing to do.

    The only technology that can double the battery life of the whole product is a low-power screen, like polymer OLED, eInk, etc. Most of the new screen technologies are either still in the prototype phase, or not suited to real computers (though fine for ebook readers like the Kindle.)

  11. PacoBell

    “the death of x86 computing”? Alarmist much? There will always be a need for machines that can do the heavy computational lifting. x86 is a well-understood and stable standard. It’s not going away anytime soon. I mean ARM’s been in existence for how long already and nobody’s foolish enough to cry wolf and live to be vindicated. Is it possible that ARM may overtake x86? Sure, anything is possible, but is it probable…?