This is my first foray into writing some semblance of technology articles! Please don’t burn me if I make factual mistakes. And tell me how you like these sorts of posts!
It’s the time of the year again — the new iPhone has been unveiled, much to the delight of many users and the chagrin of haters as well. You don’t have to look far (c.f. the user comments sections on popular sites like Gizmodo) to see that the eternal battle between the Apple camp and the Android camp (well, mostly) has all, but subsided.
The mainstream consumer technology news outlets focused on consumer gadgets would have you believe that the only huge things in this current landscape revolves around either the grab for market share amongst the various competing operating systems or the litigation on patents (dubbed the Smartphone wars). There’s more than that.
Beneath the surface of your mobile devices, two giant behemoths are gearing up for war. You might not necessarily know them, but you have been using devices that contain products from the two companies for ages.
It’s about the microprocessor
Most devices that can run code have a microprocessor inside it, colloquially known as the “CPU”. Most users would have heard the familiar fan revving up whilst they turn on their PCs or laptops. Those fans are there, usually, to cool the microprocessor that can get really, really hot.
In mobile devices, these microprocessors usually live in a SoC, or a System on a chip. The SoC will contain, on a single chip, the different components essential to the mobile device. On phones for example, the SoC will contain the microprocessor, memory, and other baseband chips. Prominent SoCs include the Snapdragon, Tegra and the Apple A6 (present in the iPhone 5).
Intel’s Dominance in Desktops and Laptops
Traditionally, on desktops and laptops, Intel has been the dominant player in microprocessors. Intel is vertically integrated — they design and fabricate the chips themselves. The other player would be AMD but Intel is a generation ahead of AMD (and probably other semiconductors fab) in terms of fabrication. This has given Intel a tremendous advantage. AMD isn’t doing that well either, with its “Bulldozer” architecture receiving little love and under-performing. Some commentators are of the mind that AMD is facing irrelevance. Intel reigns supreme in this domain.
Indeed, Intel’s supremacy is reflected in its consumer awareness. If you ask around, most people will know what Intel is, no doubt aided by their famous “Intel Inside” marketing campaign. They will know that Intel powers “something” inside their computers. The brandings “Pentium” and “Core i7″ will sound familiar. More discerning buyers might be aware of AMD’s Athlon series of microprocessors. Strangely, even though ARM powers most (if not ALL) of our mobile devices, ARM remains virtually unknown.
ARM’s Dominance in Mobile
If you look at your mobile phone, chances are that it is running on an ARM-based microprocessor. All the three SoCs I’ve mentioned above are based on ARM, to varying extents.
ARM Holdings is a different sort of company from Intel. ARM neither fabricates nor manufactures any of their chips — instead they design them and license them out to licensees to do the integration into their SoC. Whilst Intel is involved in the whole process from the design of the chips, to the interfaces down to the fabrication, ARM licenses, in general, two different types of designs: the Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) and the processor cores based on the ISA.
The Instruction Set Architecture is the layer that is seated between the hardware and software portions of a computing system. It defines a set of instructions that programmers can use to instruct the processors to perform tasks such as arithmetic. For software developers, the ISA manifests as assembly code. ARM Holdings designs and licenses the ARM architecture for use. Licensees are free to design microprocessors that work with the ISA, as Apple has done so with their A6 chip (based on the ARMv7s ISA). Qualcomm does the same with its Snapdragon series of SoC which uses the Krait microprocessor.
ARM Holdings also does designs for microprocessors as well, like the Coretex A7 that is allegedly designed for Android devices. ARM Holdings then licenses these designs to companies like nVidia for use in their SoCs (e.g. nVidia Tegra which uses the Coretex A9).
ARM has become dominant in mobile devices, whilst Intel has almost no foothold in this area. On the other hand, ARM has almost no market share in terms of Desktop, Laptops, and Data centres — areas which are pretty much dominated by Intel. Why is this so?
CISC vs. RISC
Intel’s microprocessors are based on the x86-64 ISA whilst ARM’s microprocessors (to put it in a loose sense, since ARM does not necessarily design all the ARM-based chips as I have explained above) are based on the ARM ISA. Fundamentally, these ISAs are different in their design philosophy: x86-64 is CISC whilst ARM is RISC.
CISC, or Complex Instruction Set Computing, has become the dominant design for desktops and laptops whilst RISC, or Reduced Instruction Set Computing is the dominant design for mobile devices. The CISC vs. RISC debate has been raging for time immemorial but suffice to say, each design has its own advantages.
RISC emphasises the simplicity of each instruction to the processor. In general, each instruction should only perform one operation. For example, the instruction should either perform arithmetic on data stored in the microprocessor (through fast memory known as “Registers”) or read from slower memory BUT not both at the same time. This leads to simple execution by the CPU and brings about lower power consumption albeit, allegedly, at cost to performance.
CISC instructions are more complex and can perform multiple operations per instruction. Continuing with the example above, CISC instructions may involve arithmetic and reading from memory at the same time. This allows for higher performance whilst having a higher power consumption.
The battle rages, even today, and no one has been the wiser on the victor in this battle. But in the realm of the mobile landscape, the industry has clearly favoured the RISC approach. Primarily, the low power consumption of ARM-based microprocessors has been the reason for favouring ARM over x86-64. Perhaps ARM being the cheaper option has also helped things out there. On the other hand, the higher performance of x86-64 has ensured their continued dominance in the other markets.
But now the major players of each camp is looking to force the players of the other camp to cede market share to them.
ARM’s forays into tablets and datacentres
ARM announced, not too long ago, the Coretex A15 design, with high performance being touted to try and dispel the “myth” about ARM having lower performance than x86-64. ARM is also looking to enter the servers and data centre market which has traditionally been Intel’s territory.
The A15 is also powerful enough to be put inside tablets and “ultrabook”-esque devices, something companies like nVidia is already doing with their next generation Tegra SoC. With Microsoft set to release Windows RT tablets/devices (with some announced tablets reportedly coming with a keyboard dock, much like the Asus Transformer Series running Android) running on ARM for the first time, ARM looks set to be able to gain a firm foothold into the traditional domain of Intel. (Although, some commentators are not so optimistic.) Could ARM’s new chips overcome the perceived lower performance whilst providing low power usage? Only time will tell.
Intel’s forays into “ultrabooks” and mobile
On the other hand, Intel looks set to enter the mobile market with its “Intel Atom” series of SoC. The first available SoC, codenamed “Medfield” is already set to appear on a Motorola Android device, one of the first few of its kind. Intel is also reportedly working with Microsoft to design the next set of SoC, named “Clover Field” to work exclusively with Windows. Will Intel be able to provide the high performance that x86-64 has always provided whilst avoiding its high power usage? As again, time will tell.
It is also interesting to note that with Intel’s new micro-architecture for the fourth generation of its “Core i” series of microprocessors named Haswell, Intel has reportedly managed to attain a TDP of an amazing 10W, making it a perfect candidate for future tablets and “ultrabooks”. This is even more competition for ARM.
I was pretty amazed, and yet unsurprised, to find that most consumers do not even know what ARM is, let alone know about the emerging war between the two giants.
For a further in-depth and technical view on the situation (including the additional work that Intel has to do), Ars Technica has an excellent article written on it. If you want to read more about the new Intel Haswell microarchitecture, alongside some fairly technical details, check out this article on Anandtech.