ARM to Cut Legs Out From Under x86 by 2013


On our last podcast I said that now is the “perfect storm” for the ARM processor platform. The architecture is more capable than ever while remaining power efficient, and is good enough for random bites of Internet and mobile application functionality. ABI Research seems to agree and even went one step beyond — it believes that more ARM processors will power Ultra-mobile Devices than x86 chipsets just three years from now. ABI’s definition of Ultra-Mobile Devices is fairly broad: netbooks, MIDs, smartbooks and UMPCs all fit the bill. Call them what you want, I’d agree that these device classes are poised for ARM acceptance.

Why is that? There’s a change in the mobile winds. Mobile used to mean a crappy experience for the web or software as compared to the traditional desktop experience. So to meet needs, we looked for that same desktop experience in a smaller form factor. Compared to solutions available today, that’s not exactly the definition of mobile — or at least it’s not the only mobile game in town. The real growth has been outside of the desktop world — in ARM-powered handsets and other mobile devices.

The mobile experience is better than ever and part of the reason is that hardware has caught up. Instead of slow, clunky processors, we’re now seeing robust platforms that enable the mobile world to be useful and fun. If nothing else, the tremendous growth of Apple’s iPhone (s aapl) has proven that, much like the speedy Snapdragon (s qcom) in my Google Nexus One (s goog). That same ARM processor is the driving force behind the HTC HD2 — it has given Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (s msft) new life and a fresh breath of excitement unlike any I’ve seen in the past few years. And my colleague Stacey over at GigaOm adds another factor: porting desirable functionality like Flash (s adbe) to ARM makes the platform even more compelling.

Netbooks are probably the lone exception to my thesis, of course. You can’t argue the fact of this x86 phenomenon. But if ARM-powered smartbooks or Chrome OS computers can come in at a compelling price-to-value ratio, I think ARM will even make inroads here too. Thoughts?


Jim Freeman

I’m really hoping this isn’t just wishful thinking: the promise of low power (hence long battery life), low cost netbooks with decent keyboards and screen sizes, running an instant-on or quick-boot OS that can deliver standard media and web content seems to be a Holy Grail of sorts for a fair number of folks.

The question is, is anyone besides Lenovo actually developing these machines? Or will Intel take the training wheels off Atom chipsets just enough to lure away a segment of the market and make it less likely for other manufacturers to step into the gap?

Katrina P

Smartbooks will overtake Netbooks. While people will continue to use fully-featured Laptop computers for other tasks, the smartbook and netbook are both aimed at being low-cost energy-efficient internet devices. And the Smartbook does it so much better.

Microsoft is eliminated from the smartbook market, because it doesn’t have a suitable OS to run on ARM processors. Windows Mobile 6.5 runs on ARM, but it’s old, and its interface was designed for stylus input.

Instead, the smartbook market will be full of Linux variants: Chrome, Android, Ubuntu, Moblin and others. Microsoft just didn’t see this coming.

Scott Brown

What about the price? Are ARM processors usually much cheaper and smaller than intel/amd x86 chips (in blocks of 1000) ?

Less Power, Heat, Size and Cost make it a worthy competitor.

Kevin C. Tofel

“Less Power, Heat, Size and Cost make it a worthy competitor.”

Haven’t those factors always been a competitive advantage for ARM? They have, but they didn’t take away market share from x86. In fact, these attributes actually offer *less* of an advantage over x86 today (relatively speaking) than they did for all these years because Intel has been trying to step down into ARM territory since 2006 or so. Put another way: the factors you mention have lessened of late, while the paradigm shift I pointed out is growing.

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