ARM vs. Intel: Clash of the Processing Titans

Not all that long ago, Microsoft announced that they were including support for ARM processors in Windows 8. Those of you familiar with the smartphone and tablet markets will probably see the relevance of this move by Microsoft: ARM produces the designs which have backed the majority of smartphones, tablets and handheld gaming devices over the last ten years. Microsoft’s announcement brings the world’s most popular line of operating systems to the world’s most popular line of 32-bit processors, and could well be the move that Microsoft needs to make to compete with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android on a level pegging in the tablet market.

The story of ARM itself is rather interesting. ARM Holdings, plc. started out with the processor design part of Acorn Computers Ltd., designing RISC processors for the Acorn Archimedes, a powerful British educational computer of the early 1990s. While the Archimedes never attained the success that it deserved, with its advanced operating system and powerful hardware, the processor moved beyond Acorn when Apple chose it for their Newton project. It was discovered that the simple RISC design of the processor made it very frugal with electrical power, which soon made it popular in handheld and embedded devices.

Not having fabrication facilities of their own, ARM has licensed the ARM architecture to many companies, including Apple, Nvidia, Nintendo and Texas Instruments. ARM processors are estimated to make up 90% or more of the 32-bit RISC processor market, with applications in mobile phones, particularly smartphones, tablets, portable media players, handheld gaming devices and in computer peripherals. Recently, ARM’s processor designs have taken massive strides in improvement as the iPhone introduced the smartphone to the wider public, after years of being targeted towards business users. Since 2005, ARM processors have hit clock speeds in excess of 1GHz, and dual- and quad-core processors are being introduced.

Now, with Microsoft entering the game with a fully-capable desktop-style operating system on the ARM architecture, ARM has entered a market share currently dominated by Intel. Intel is a company which needs little introduction, with a history spanning from the very first microprocessor design from the Traitorous Eight to the present day, where Intel and AMD’s x86 architecture underpins the entire mainstream of personal computers. IBM’s use of the Intel 8088 was important in the early spread of the IBM-compatible computer, with an easily reverse-engineered BIOS which allowed clone manufacturers to quickly produce cheap alternatives to IBM’s expensive, business-targeted machines, and Intel rode the wave as Microsoft’s MS-DOS and Windows operating systems became popular with everyday users. Eventually, even Apple, who were content with the PowerPC architecture for years, adopted the x86 architecture for their iMac and MacBook computers. Today, all but a small subset of niche-market workstations carry an Intel design within their hardware.

By announcing a port of Windows 8 to the ARM architecture, perhaps Microsoft are tacitly acknowledging that there has been a strong shift in the software market since Apple’s introduction of the iPhone. Intel and Microsoft have remained strong in the personal computer market by virtue of an extremely large and extensive software library dating back ultimately to the mid-1980s. Apple, and to a lesser extent, Android, have marketed their devices on the idea of applications, yet Windows possesses millions or tens of millions of applications versus the scant few hundred thousand for iOS or Android, an advantage which would not be carried over immediately to the ARM port. However, the power-hungry nature of the complex x86 architecture, which was originally CISC and later CISC code on RISC hardware, has held back Intel from attaining any real success in the new smartphone and tablet markets which have acquired so much public interest. Even the relatively frugal Atom processors found in netbooks are considerably more power-hungry than ARM’s processor designs.

This creates quite an interesting situation between the two companies. With ARM designing new quad-core processors to compete with Intel’s Atom processors, and Intel looking for ways to reduce the power consumption of their processors in order to maintain their distinct advantage in terms of software libraries, the two companies seem to be trying to out-manoeuvre each other. Intel may simply decide to absorb the much smaller British company into its ranks by using its financial clout, or else it may decide to try to take on ARM face-to-face by continuing to develop its x86 architecture for lower power consumption. Alternatively, it could introduce a new architecture altogether, although they would be wise to take a note from history and remember the lessons learned with the Itanium processor debacle circa 2001.

What we have here is the strongest competition that Intel has faced for years. It also represents the first significant attack on the x86 architecture’s dominant position in personal computing since the early 1990s. Of course, the x86 architecture won’t simply die from nibbles at the low-end computing end of its market share – it’s too deeply integrated into business applications, servers and supercomputing for that. However, this does represent one facet of a major shift in personal computing, where portable devices such as smartphones and tablets represent more people’s interaction with computing than desktops and laptops. ARM are positioned nicely to take full advantage of this, and Intel will need to act quickly if they don’t want to be left playing catch-up.

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