Chip design firm ARM grabbed the spotlight at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week when Microsoft announced that its new Windows OS would work on the ARM architecture. ARM processors go into most of the world's smartphones and tablets, and with Windows support, the company can now focus on the wider market for PCs, where it has virtually no presence. Nvidia also announced that it was building its first ARM-based chip, code-named Denver, for PCs and servers.
Despite the progress, ARM, which licenses its designs to chip makers, is keeping its focus on smartphones and tablets. The company's CEO, Warren East, sat down with the IDG News Service to discuss Windows, the PC market and future architecture developments.
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IDGNS: What led Microsoft to port Windows to ARM?
East: Microsoft wanted to play in a much larger space than just PCs, in the world of Internet-connected devices, and they can see that ARM is the processor that it is powering those ... devices. They see a necessity to port their operating system. It's good that they have eventually come to that conclusion. Microsoft has made a bold move.
IDGNS: With Windows, is ARM now targeting the PC market?
East: We never set out to target PCs. It's Intel turf, and the Microsoft OS didn't run on ARM. It would be hugely expensive for frankly not much gain. If you look at ARM from a financial point of view, when somebody goes and buys a PC ... we are earning royalty on [components]. The only thing that's missing is the CPU ... probably selling for $40 to $50. While it's high value for us, the volumes of PCs total about 300 million units. What sort of share could ARM possibly get? It doesn't make a lot of financial sense for us.
IDGNS: When will Windows on ARM reach devices?
East: You'll have to talk to [Microsoft], because it is their program.
IDGNS: What is the level of complexity involved in porting Windows to ARM?
East: I have been quite sympathetic that it's a very difficult problem for them to do and it's very costly. With 25 years of history behind Windows operating system and the PC, it isn't just a matter of porting a kernel and away you go. There's all applications, devices drivers, it's a lot of work. From Microsoft's point of view, you can understand why they wouldn't necessarily have done that before now.
IDGNS: Several Windows PCs and devices that ship today come with features like 64-bit addressing, hardware-based multithreading, which ARM doesn't have yet. What kind of a strain does Windows put on ARM's chip design efforts?
East: Yes, we are a long way away from that today. The PC you refer to, [there's] 25 years of growing up where the hardware and software have been inextricably linked. There's no reason you can't have the same functionality without the hardware multithreading or without the 64-bit. It's just that because Intel [has] produced processors like that, Microsoft [has] used those features.
IDGNS: Are you looking at 64-bit in chip designs going ahead?
East: I think it is inevitable that will happen. We are a business, we have finite resources, and we have to match the resources against the opportunities. Hitherto, we've decided it's not been sensible to have 64-bit programs. Extended memory addressing at 40 bits is in the latest Cortex-A15 ... but we haven't had the need for a 64-bit [arithmetic logic unit].