ARM, Atom, PowerPC

What is a MID? It’s a Mobile Internet Device also known as a netbook. A huge battle is brewing as to whether a MID is more like a smartphone or more like a PC. It has major implications in the microprocessor market, the operating system market, for the smartphone manufacturers, for Apple and probably even the wireless network providers. Let’s look at the processors.

In the blue corner is Intel, obviously with a stronghold in the desktop and notebook PC market. They have AMD to contend with there but I’m afraid I don’t see how AMD can survive and I predict they will fall by the wayside. But that type of chip is too big and power-hungry, not to mention expensive, for other markets and so they have come out with Atom, which is a low-end embeddable x86 processor. However, it is still burdened with the x86 instruction set, which means that it requires a large and power-consuming instruction decode unit.

In the other blue corner is ARM, with a stronghold in the cell-phone market including the smart-phone market. All those 25,000 applications in the iPhone store run on ARM. Blackberries are ARM-based to, although just to add a wrinkle, manufactured by Intel (Intel acquired an ARM license when they acquired the semiconductor business of the old Digital Equipment Corporation, and renamed StrongARM to Xscale).

The battleground for the upcoming fight is the MID . These are notebook PCs with smaller screens and a much lower price point than a PC, but with larger screens than a smartphone. Intel with Atom is betting, along with Microsoft so far, that this market will demand windows binary compatibility and thus will require a Microsoft operating system and an x86 processor. ARM are betting that this is not true, that MIDs will hide the operating system, run new applications and so nobody will care what the underlying operating system will be. Which means that it will be some form of Linux such or perhaps Google’s Android (or if Apple enters this market as expected, OS-X which also Unix under the hood). Lurking around, of course, are the other smartphone operating systems, Symbian and Windows Mobile although they seem unlikely candidates for major success in the MID space (but primarily running on ARM in any case).

The really interesting wrinkle is whether Microsoft supports ARM with Windows 7 for this space. That would not give complete Windows binary compatibility but if Office was available (not just the operating system) that could be a very compelling compromise. Intel would be the big loser of this since Atom has poor power consumption and higher cost and really its only attraction is backwards compatibility with full-size PCs.

The big downside to Microsoft of supporting ARM, apart from the engineering cost, is the fallout it would likely provoke with Intel. But Microsoft has done this before when, while publicly committed to Itanium, they ported Windows to 64-bit x86 with AMD. By the way, this was done using Virtutech virtualization technology (before I worked there) with the result that Windows64 booted successfully the first day silicon was available, an extraordinary achievement.

One other wrinkle is the manufacturing. ARM is, of course, available from a huge range of suppliers. Intel will build Atom-based parts but is not in the ASIC business. TSMC will build Atom-based parts based on their recent announcement. However, the TSMC press release talks of expanding the “Intel Atom’s availability for Intel customers” which may just be marketing getting the word Intel in as many times as possible, or really may mean some serious restrictions on availability. Furthermore, the Atom is not a soft core and so can’t be prototyped in FPGAs. Whether this is a critical success factor remains to be seen. Based on my previous experience dealing with Intel, they won’t make any netlist available. Sometimes being paranoid to survive has its downside.

Lurking quietly in the 3rd corner of the microprocessor ring is PowerPC. This is heavily used in Avionics, automotive and networking (routers and cellular base-stations). It used to be the processor in the Mac, but Apple switched to Intel reportedly because they couldn’t persuade IBM to produce a low power PowerPC to keep Macbooks competitive. Both IBM and especially Freescale manufacture chips using it but somehow it is off the radar compared to ARM and Intel. One interesting facet is that Apple acquired PA Semiconductor who were developing a very low powered version of PowerPC. Apple are rumored to be producing chips embedding this processor so future Apple MIDs and possibly even future iPhones could end up with PowerPC, although it seems unlikely that Macs themselves will switch back due to the body of software that has just been expensively converted to Intel.

Ignoring the PowerPC (which at most may be a player with Apple) the bottom line is that Atom is more power-hungry and more costly (because it really is more expensive to manufacture) than ARM. Intel may be banking on getting a generation ahead in manufacturing process as a way to reduce both power and cost, but that won’t help anyone going through TSMC. ARM is much lower powered and so offers the prospect of a MID that has days of battery life (like the (ARM-based) Amazon Kindle has already, but with very different screen technology).

My gut feel is that a MID will be more like a souped up smartphone than a dumbed down PC, and so Atom will lose to ARM. In fact I think the smartphone and MID markets will converge. Microsoft will lose unless they port to ARM. There will be no overall operating system winner (like with smartphones). But a few minutes with Google will find you lots of people with an opposing view to mine.

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