Sunday, March 15, 2009

Last week, my friend and former colleague at Microprocessor Report Peter Glaskowsky, posted to his blog on CNet responding to a GigaOm story by Stacey Higginbotham. Peter called a post x86 world "preposterous." I disagree with Peter and here's what I posted:
I have to disagree. In order for Intel and x86 to be successful in the smartphone market, there needs to be a reasonable need to run the PC operating system and programs on a 3 inch screen. Otherwise, x86 compatibility is meaningless in a market where ARM-based mobile operating systems already dominate. The x86 instruction set and traditional Windows has no inherent advantage in the smartphone market. Apple has shown that a mobile operating system, even one based on a desktop core, needs a different user interface and application design.

To Peter’s point that instruction sets are not relevant, why must x86 win in the end? There are only three x86 vendors and only one of those is both financially healthy and shipping significant volume. While there are a few hundred million x86 processor shipped every year, there are many hundreds of millions of ARM-based designs in cell phone, microcontrollers, and the like shipped every year (over 10 billion since 1990) from many different companies, large and small, and in between. ARM is not some obscure processor, and it is used by many innovative companies (according to ARM, 60 partner companies were at MWC'09 For Intel (or AMD for that matter) to take x86 into cell phones is proof that if your only (successful) tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Intel’s agreement with TSMC to offer an Atom-based (Intel’s lowest end, lowest power x86 core) hard core for SoC design is Intel’s recognition that it needs to tap into the ARM ecosystem. The same ecosystem it failed to win over with XScale. Details of the agreement are still meager, but I’m concerned because it allows Intel to vet who and what will use the Atom core. That is not open enough for true innovation and competition.

In a related story, CNet’s Brook Cruthers asked if anyone would buy an Intel Smartphone:

But he didn't address battery life. There is no free lunch – more performance will use more energy. For an x86 processor to meet or beat an ARM-based SoC, it will require an extreme measure of very fine-grained power management. One of the power penalties of x86 is that the instruction decoder is complex with many special case conditions (in comparison to ARM) and increased complexity often translates into increased power.