ARM: A growing force in chip design

Thanks in part to the unheralded ARM, the tech world is moving away from the likes of AMD, Intel, and Microsoft

Much to the chagrin of the largest high-tech companies whose products have served as the foundation for computing for the past 30 years, the microprocessor is breaking free of the chains that bind it: overweight operating systems, the need for heavyweight batteries, and the requirement for lots of room with a built-in fan or two to keep devices cool enough to operate.

ARM is a microprocessor manufacturer that is taking advantage of advancing technology's steady destruction of those chains forged by the likes of AMD, Intel, and Microsoft.

Here're a few facts:

  • ARM is the processor used in both the Apple iPhone and Amazon's Kindle.
  • ARM shipped its 10 billionth processor this year and in 2008 alone shipped 2.5 billion processors.
  • ARM chips are in about 98 percent of all cell phones out today.

There are a number of reasons why Apple and Amazon and just about every cell phone manufacturer on earth uses ARM technology.

If you compare the ARM Cortex-A8 to Intel's Centrino Atom, you may be startled to learn that the ARM is about 75 percent smaller than the Atom, 144 square millimeters versus 666 square millimenters, respectively, and yet both processors run at 1GHz. While the Atom is a two-chip solution, ARM is a single-chip solution, requiring less room and less power.

Another major difference between Intel and ARM comes from ARM's business model. While Intel believes in designing all parts of processor technology, ARM licenses its technology to other chip manufacturers such as graphics giant Nvidia, telecom leader Qualcomm, and another leader in chip design, Texas Instruments.

These companies are creating what the industry calls SOC (system on a chip) designs. SOC also means a far shorter "bus" route for the data to travel on.

Intel also designs SOCs, but that's one company versus dozens of companies using the ARM, each with its own ideas. As a result you end up with chips like TI's OMAP3440, which offers multimedia graphics, signal processing, and support for Windows Mobile and Symbian OSes. ARM claims the A8 combined with TI uses one-quarter of the power of the Atom, is twice as fast for browsing and video, and lasts 20 times longer during standby.

The TI chip is in cell phones, but imagine a similar chip in netbooks -- because that's the latest direction ARM chips are taking.

Imagine a netbook with a six-cell battery powered by a chip that uses only about one-fourth the power consumption of an Atom. You will end up with battery life lasting a full day or more.

ARM and netbooks are a demonstration that, as the old limitations crumble, technology is taking us toward an explosion of hundreds of different types of digital devices that can use operating systems other than Windows or even Apple's OS X. Because of this, there will also be devices from many more OEMs than the half dozen or so that now rule the notebook market. And all of these devices will share one common trait: the ability to access the Web while offering their own unique applications and services.

Last week David Marshall's podcast talked about a company called AppZero that demonstrated a technology to create appliances without the need for an operating system. Read also Neil McAllister's blog, Fatal Exception, where he writes about iPhones, netbooks, and the age of the invisible PC.

Now there are some challenges if a netbook OEM wants to use an ARM-powered processor, so let's talk about those for a moment.

At present, you can't run YouTube at full screen. However, ARM's James Bruce tells me Adobe will make Flash 10 support available for ARM before the end of the year, and that challenge will disappear.

But what about the major objection that current ARM stand-alone microprocessors, TI cell phone devices not withstanding, can't run Windows applications? True, but this is exactly one of the chains I spoke about that will fall apart thanks to cloud computing, Web 2.0 applications, and browsers behaving like operating systems, not to mention other choices like Linux.

ARM works well with Linux. Read Galen Gruman's piece on desktop Linux and why it makes sense for mainstream use.

Like a previous generation's style of wearing gold chains around their necks to look cool, which now looks awfully silly, the heavyweight gold chains of Windows, Intel, and AMD are also looking kind of foolish. Over the next several years, they will simply be out of style.

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