X86 vs. ARM - the apocalyptical war

Posted by Rob Enderle

The war between x86 and ARM is heating up, while competitive tension between various ARM licensees is escalating.

We first got a real inkling of this when Windows 8 was announced as a dual platform product. Obviously, Intel’s focus on trying to penetrate the iPad (tablet) and smartphone space hasn’t gone unnoticed.  

X86 vs. ARM - the apocalyptical warHowever, what I find most interesting is that historically, Intel was practically unbeatable. Yet, Santa Clara hasn't even managed to establish a beachhead in its pitched mobile battle against rival ARM.

Indeed, ARM - with Apple's iPad leading the way - has created a strong relationship with industry heavyweights like Calxeda (listed as one of the most innovative technology companies in the world), indicating that ARM is making better headway on servers than Intel is on tablets or smartphones.  

Interestingly enough, as the relationship with companies like Apple (client) and Calxeda (server) illustrate, there is a growing trend of bypassing named chip companies like Nvidia, Freescale, and Qualcomm. In essence, this isn’t just a war between the technologies, but rather, a battle over which ARM licensee will help design the best next-gen chip - with a DIY approach now trending.  

I should add that Microsoft also has a well-staffed processor group though, in their case, they used the x86 technologies rather than ARM to create a custom part for the Xbox and remain unique in this regard within the x86 space.   

The Battlefield

Currently, x86 is the dominant architecture for both desktops and servers, whether they are running Windows or Linux as their base OS. To be sure, ARM servers are still in their infancy, while the company is limited to consumption devices like eBooks, iPads, and smartphones (with the exception of pictures which can be created on two of the three product types).  

This created a very real barrier between where ARM left off and x86 picked up - because while ARM was vastly more power efficient - it simply lacked the bandwidth to run mostly single threaded desktop applications.  

But Intel has been heavily promoting the concept of many-cores in an attempt to bypass the very real limitations of forever trying to increase clock speeds. Meaning, Santa Clara opted to design processors with an increasing numbers of lower performing cores instead of ever faster processors.

In other words, they neatly "flipped" their own market into one that favored an energy efficient chip. This inadvertently facilitated the creation of ARM-powered servers, and is the first inkling that Intel and its x86 base are facing a major new front in an ongoing war of attrition. The goal has been redefined: provide the most performance with multi-threaded applications using as little energy as possible - something which is obviously much easier for ARM to execute than Intel.

Still, in a world historically defined by Intel and Microsoft, differentiation is clearly quite difficult. Currently, the most financially successful technology vendor is Apple, which codes its own OS. Cupertino's success is also defined by the iPod, iPhone, and iPad - most of which use indigenously designed ARM processors.

Calling the Fight

This arrangement has resulted in a higher level of initial hardware problems for Apple. Plus, Cupertino's chips tend to underperform their counterparts from Qualcomm and Nvidia - a competitive disadvantage which could force the market back to the more familiar horizontal specialization, albeit with different vendors.  

This will be the first test to gauge if more vendors will choose Apple’s route, or perhaps Apple itself will decide to switch back to using a third-party ARM vendor. Either way, the existing model will be replaced or reaffirmed.  

The second, larger battle is the one looming between x86 and ARM. The trend is moving solidly away from x86 at the moment, suggesting Intel, in particular, needs a stronger and more viable plan "B."  Simply put, if a branded Intel server vendor moves to ARM, or Windows quickly sells in high volume on a RISC-based platform (before Intel can make comparable mobile inroads), the market is likely to conclude that x86 is in decline, which could be catastrophic for Santa Clara. 

Of course, it is generally far easier to move up-market with a part than down-market. For example, to move up ARM only needs to add more cores or more processors, while to move down, Intel would be force to cripple existing products. As we have seen with Atom’s performance, this stategy hasn’t gone particularly well because people just don’t like to buy products they perceive as hobbled. 

It is also more difficult for a vendor like Intel to move down-market, as they are afraid of cannibalizing existing revenue sources. Then again, moving up-market creates new premium parts and the same conflicts don’t result. Historically, we observed this paradigm with early PCs like the PC Jr. which were somewhat crippled and allowed other vendors to take the market, in this case, from IBM.  

Wrapping Up:  ARM Has the Advantage

Intel is indeed a powerful corporation. Yet, ARM maintains the positional advantage because it is moving up-market. I’d argue that ARM currently holds the high ground - much like Intel did against RISC parts a couple of decades ago. 

However, it is not yet clear whether the horizontal specialization that defines the current technology market will hold with ARM, so ARM vendors certainly can’t sleep easy.