The Coming ARMs Race


The numbers are staggering. Most folks probably can’t imagine how prevalent the ARM processor is when all the marketing and attention is on the Intel’s and AMD’s of the world. Let me show you some information from the Wikipedia article.

In 2005, about 98% of the more than one billion mobile phones sold each year used at least one ARM processor.[3] As of 2009, ARM processors account for approximately 90% of all embedded 32-bit RISC processors[4]. ARM processors are used extensively in consumer electronics, including PDAs, mobile phones, digital media and music players, hand-held game consoles, calculators and computer peripherals such as hard drives and routers.

While the first number, 98% of one billion plus phones were ARM it becomes even more staggering to think about that second number. 90% of ALL embedded 32-bit RISC processors. Thats cell phones, TVs, mp3 players, calculators, car components, watches, cash registers, networking equipment and the list goes on. We’re surrounded by ARM and most of us don’t even know it.

PC manufacturers have been plugging away hard at bigger, better, faster for a few decades now. Parallel to that progression have been the software developers in particular Microsoft who keep adding features and thus bulk. While this was happening some interesting cultural things took place as well. The growth of smart phones has made mobile computing easier and more powerful thanks in part to ARM. In addition a focus on “green” computing, power saving, and doing more with less. The result was a shift towards ARM’s signature traits of reasonably powerful computing with a low power usage. Software built for ARM takes this in to account and runs fast on minimal hardware.

Of course the old guard of Microsoft, Apple and the Linux community sat up and took notice and are now taking steps to get with the program. Microsoft’s first attempt at rectifying the situation was to streamline Windows on non-ARM processors and the successful result was Windows 7. While that was a good first step Microsoft realized staying on x86 with Intel and AMD alone would not be prudent. The end result is Windows 8 supporting ARM. You can read about it straight from the horses mouth here or you can watch a demonstration here.

While Apple has, not surprisingly, been more progressive than Microsoft in turning to ARM they’ve still kept their traditional desktop computer systems running Intel x86 based chips and software until recently when a leak came to light that Apple plans to go ARM even on the desktop. You can get a little more insight from this ZDNet article.

The biggest question seems to be can these chips muster the performance similar to chips like Intel’s and AMD’s. I think what gets missed by those who ask this question is the fact that development on ARM has this focus of speed, performance and power saving. Finding ways to make the software that runs on ARM more efficient. A sort of desire to not succumb to the bloat that the systems surrounding the x86 architecture had succumbed to. We can see this in many of the games currently available on cell phones like Dungeon Defenders which achieves a PC or console like 3D gaming experience on chips that don’t include a specific graphics processor. So the question concerning performance is less one of “can the chips do it?” but are people going to be ok with “good enough”? The answer seems to be yes, thus far, especially in light of the convenience provided by the mobility and power advantages of the lower power chips.

It will be interesting to see which company brings the ARM desktop/laptop to market first and most successful. To borrow a meme. I for one welcome our new ARM over lords.