Sandcastle In Microprocessor Empire

21 Nov

Believe it or not, there are more computers around us than one might think. The cell phones in our pocket, the calculators in our backpack are all full-fledged computers. And they are getting more and more powerful with time. The current crop of smart-phones can do almost everything a computer is expected to do. They can play music, videos. They can be used to view and edit documents. Their older cousin tablets can also do all these things. And when the computing power of these devices is not quite enough, they rely on cloud computing, that is when the data is sent to a server and processed there and the result is sent back. And to do that all the device needs is the power to run a browser. All these are making a powerful processor, which is the brain of a computer, less necessary. A processor that is just powerful enough to run the operating is more appropriate in these devices. What has become more important is battery life.

This has given birth to a very interesting trend in the computing industry. That is a meteoric rise in the popularity of ARM micro-architecture. While the full-fledged computers use x86 architecture, all the smaller and mobile devices use ARM. And in the recent surge of uses in smart-phones and tablet computers has helped its fame increase dramatically. The x86 architecture is developer friendly and power efficient in its own game, but it cannot match ARM in power efficiency. As a result more a more developers are shifting to ARM architecture. And as the leading x86 manufacturer Intel stands to lose the more in this process. The chip giant Intel commands a staggering market share, which is above 80%, in x86 processor. And as x86 itself dominates the traditional computer scenario, if ARM were to take the lead, Intel’s empire stands to fall first.

In modern days people are much busier than in the past. Increasingly more competitive life style has driven men and women alike to live on the edge. And to help live on that edge smartphones were introduced to the world. By definition smartphones are technically full-fledged computers. The only real difference they have with traditional computers is they are primarily communication devices whereas traditional computers are primarily data processing devices. Although they continue to share more and more core feature as time passes. Although there is no official definition of smartphone, it is considered to be a device which is primarily a voice communication but can also many PC like functions through the use of some operating system. The major modern day mobile OS are, iOS, Android, Blackberry OS, webOS, Windows Phone and Symbian. These are all operating systems that have features like full blown desktop operating systems. A chart by shows the feature-sets by iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Here it can be seen that they all, to some extent, have features that people generally expect from a traditional computer. They have multi-tasking support, removable storage support, various types of email system, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter integration, file management, flash support, internet tethering, office document view and editing and last but not least, softwares or more popularly known as “Apps”. In addition to all these operating systems can play music, movies and run video games also. All these are blurring the difference between desktop OS and mobile OS.


Update 1: Here I have to add that many of the missing features have been added to the OSs since. Windows Phone now supports copy-paste, multitasking, tethering, twitter integration, and it also sports 40,000+ apps on the market. iOS has added Facebook integration in its 5th version and also voice command. Android now supports native video calling in Android 4.0, and it also adds native Facebook integration. Last but not least, flash support on all mobile platform has met it’s end as Adobe has decided to pull the plug on development for flash for mobile.

Update 2: An even updated chart could be found at here at (or see the direct image), which shows even father advancments of the OSs.

Notebook computers have been around since 1979, the Gridlock Compass. Although it was nothing like the number crunching monsters we see nowadays, it was functional computer by that time’s standard. The form-factor has survived till modern times due to people’s need of computers on the go. As the need of having longer time with the computer increased, a new breed of notebook or laptop computer, called netbook computer made its debut to market. Netbooks are smaller version of traditional laptops which are capable of running on battery much longer than its older cousins. But lengthened battery life came with the cost of processing power. These computers were so weak terms of processing power that they were deemed only to be good enough to surf the internet, hence the name Netbook. While offering smaller display and lower end processors netbooks offered almost the double the battery life( This battery life offered great flexibility to the people who need to stay on the go for a longer period of time. The smaller size of them also was an attractive aspect of them to many people. Netbooks went from no market share to 20% among portable computers Q2’09 and reached its peak in Q3’09.( The after that the pitfalls of netbook form factor started to come forth. Despite them being named differently than “Notebooks” and being smaller netbooks look similar to the traditional notebooks. For that reason people started to expect them to function as a normal laptop which they naturally cannot. And that eventually outweighed their positive aspect of battery life. It stalled their growth and when Apple Inc. shipped the first iPad their market share started to decline. (


iPad is the first commercially successful tablet and it has been attributed as the main reason for the decline of netbooks. Tablet computers are older cousins of their smartphone brothers. The main concept of tablet is instead of scaling down traditional computers, scaling up the smartphones which already proved to be capable platforms. All the major smartphone operating systems have been ported to tablets. The operating system that was used to run iPhone used to be called “iPhone OS”. Apple rechristened the OS as iOS and ported to its tablet, iPad. Google officially added support for tablets in their Android OS from version 3.0 or Honeycomb. HP webOS, previously Palm webOS also added support for tablet. Blackberry acquired QNX operating system and merged it with their Blackberry OS to run their tablet, Blackberry Playbook. All of these mean that the tablets are basically quite similar to the smartphones but with bigger displays. The bigger displays effectively eliminated quite a few issues that were in the ways the platform being recognized as usable for productivity. The tablets are recognized as a device a device that can be used to browse the internet comfortably. They are also much more suitable to view and edit documents, compose emails and other business related works. They are also much more suitable to media related works for their bigger screen. The tablets offer all the good points of smartphones while offering better battery life. A very specific advantage tablets have over the netbooks is that they are touch enabled. This specific aspect adds to consumer appeal. The tablets can also be docked with external keyboard which adds to its advantages over netbooks.

Since its introduction in April, 2008 the tablet segment has seen unforeseen growth. By 2010 the tablet segment has taken over of about 18.9% of PC market. It is estimated to be nearly double by 2012.(JP Morgan analyst). According to Forrester Research the total number of tablets sold will reach 44.0 million while number of user shall reach an astounding 82.1 million. These growths will not be out of nowhere. While bigger portion of tablet users have tablets as their secondary machine, AdMob survey shows that 28% uses them as their primary machine. These users are the ones that PC market is losing. The AdMob survey also shows that,

  • 84 percent of tablet owners play games on the device
  • 61 percent read the news
  • 56 percent engage in social networking
  • 52 percent spend more time on the tablet than listening to the radio
  • 34 percent spend more time on the tablet than watching TV

All these are activities that can also be done in PCs. But the fact that these are done on tablets indicates that the users are becoming more and more reliant on tablets. And that shift in reliance is causing PC to lose market. Tablets are doing what most consumers do with their PCs at a much lower price point. That is also another major reason for people to go for tablets.

Besides consumers, the rise of smartphones and tablets is benefiting ARM the most. Each and every smartphone and tablet in the market today is powered by ARM based chip. ARM, unlike Intel, do not sell chip to OEMs directly. Instead they license their technology to OEMs so they can develop their own chip tailored to their specific need based on the ARM architecture. Right now according to Samsung, Apple, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, ARCHOS, IBM, STMicroelectronics are among list of its extensive list of partners. While according to iSuppli Corporation Intel commands a total of 13.2% of the microchips produced in the world total share of just Samsung (9.3%) and Texas Instrument (4.3%) is more than that at 13.6% of total chips. It means that ARM already powers more number of devices than Intel does. And with its rapidly growing tablet market ARM’s share is on an upward journey.

ARM processors are so common place for their low power consumption. Their low power consumption has won them the heart of smartphones and tablets in the first place. But at the same time they are known to have relatively lower computing power also. For smartphones and tablets, which generally does not require much power by design it is not much of a problem. And that low power consumption helps those devices achieve a much higher battery life which is a very attractive aspect of them. But as they are becoming more and more commonplace in people’s lives sometime they are required to do much more processor intensive tasks. That is when the power of internet comes in handy. Cloud computing is a huge part of tablet computing. Whenever a task is seen to need more power than a tablet can provide, the processing is done in a server. The input data is provided by the consumer device, sent to the server, processed in the server and sent back to the device where the user can sue the result. All these are done in near real time. Google Docs, Shazam, Amazon Cloud Player, Photoshop Express, Assisted GPS are all prime examples of cloud computing that are frequently used by these mobile devices. Readily available Wi-Fi hotspots, faster mobile broadband has made cloud computing possible. Research conducted by Computerworld shows that Verizon’s LTE network can achieve as high as 13.3 megabit per second speed. Cloud computing has reduced the need for a powerful processor inside these devices to a great extent.

Although lower power seems to be enough for these devices, the partners are not sitting idle. They are pushing boundaries for ARM architecture every day. ARM announced its Cortex A8 back in 2005 when it broke the 1 GHz barrier for the first time. Phones based sporting that speed hit market on 2009 for the first time when Toshiba released their TG01. Latest architectures such as Cortex A9 have been found to perform on par with desktop processors. Benchmarks performed by shows that at 2 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 achieves 5762 while Intel Atom Z550 achievs 5600 at the same clock speed in benchmarking software Coremark.


NVIDIA recently unveiled their upcoming Tegra 3 SoC based on Cortex A9. Internal benchmark shows that the chip is capable of outperforming a Core 2 Duo processor by Intel. So the power advantages the Intel chips have is also in danger.

X86 architecture’s biggest advantage is Microsoft Windows. According to latest statistics by Windows has a share of 88.91% among traditional computers, and Windows does not currently support ARM architecture. Mac OS, which commands 5.40% according to the same study also, does not support ARM either. So consumers whose need cannot be meet by tablets or smartphones has to go for a x86 based processor. This very scenario is about to changed very soon. Microsoft has announced that their next version of windows, code name Windows 8 shall support ARM architecture and the OS shall be optimized for tablet form factor. This step by Microsoft effectively eliminates all dilemmas by consumers who are doubtful about purchasing a tablet as their primary machine. Windows 8 support shall enable OEMs to build native windows tablet which is likely to attract more buyers to the category.

According to IDC Intel commands 80.8% of microprocessor market or x86 market, while AMD has a share of 18.9%. So it is quite clear if the share of x86 itself were to fall, Intel will lose more than AMD. Intel spent a massive $23 billion on R&D in 2010 alone. So if despite spending money on their revenue begins to shrink it will take its toll. AMD although known for its microprocessor business, has a very successful GPU business it got by acquiring ATI in 2006. While Intel has a very successful GPU segment running in the form of Graphics Media Accelerator, it is very much reliant on the x86 platform. On the other hand GPU by AMD-ATI is mainly focused on discreet graphics solution. This also indicates a more sensitive position for Intel in this matter.

Intel is the biggest microprocessor company earth. They have all the necessary resource to get out of any trouble that might threaten the company’s future. While their massive R&D may become the reason for their downfall, it may be the just the think that saves them. While this is not the first time Intel’s been in trouble, this is by far the biggest and most complicated. The problem with Intel’s current situation is, the threat is indirect and from many sources at one time. It’s not easy to face such challenge. It is facing challenge from both hardware and software part. While it capable of the hardware part, it does not have any real means to face the software problem. And the reality is Intel has not seen much success in either field yet. Intel has been developing a processor for mobile platforms, but any Moorestown architecture based phone is yet to hit them market. Intel also is developing a Linux based operating system called MeeGo in a joint venture with Nokia. But that project is also in dark after Nokia decided to throw its weight behind Window Phone for its future OS of choice instead of MeeGo. So as of now Intel’s problems are not going away. And if they cannot take effective action soon their empire will start to collapse., netbook market share


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