Nalini Muppala

Analysis, observations, perspectives on mobile space

Intel vs. ARM: Software and OS

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As the adage goes, “Software sells hardware.” Apple probably knows this best, but Intel understands it just as well. Intel acquired Wind River in an effort to spruce up its offerings outside of the PC market.

For the netbook market at least, Intel has some advantage on the software front. Intel and Microsoft had gone on an extended joyride, establishing the WinTel hegemony. Because of this, most major software vendors develop for x86 architecture. Case in point: Windows – the dominant operating system for PCs — is available on Intel’s x86 and thus by extension on Atom. ARM has yet to convince Microsoft to port Windows to the ARM platform. This deficiency has meant that netbook makers opting to provide Windows OS have no choice but to use Intel’s Atom even if they prefer ARM’s performance per Watt.

But ARM might not need to court Microsoft after all. As consumers embrace cloud-based computing, OS wars will be a thing of the past. All one needs is a device to get on to the cloud. Efficiency is necessary for such a device. After all, the end user does not care which OS powers their device; usability and elegance trump all else. This is especially true in the case of mobile phones and netbooks, which are used for communication, entertainment, and light productivity needs.

As I mentioned in the previous post, ARM cores are now capable of supporting a full Linux distribution. Beautiful things come about when you get a full OS onto a handheld device and let the developers do their magic. I am not daydreaming here; we have seen it work with the full Mac OS X-powered iPhone and its application ecosystem. Google porting Android to ARM would provide non-Apple devices a joint platform and scale to take on the App store and its huge head start. Android is a shot in the arm for the ecosystem – think Motorola Droid. If Google succeeds in pushing its Chrome OS to drive future netbooks, ARM stands to gain.

Software targeting mobile devices needs to be particular about optimal use of resource. Intel unwittingly bred inefficiency in its software ecosystem. I do not mean to single out Intel here, but the availability of ever more powerful processors combined with falling memory prices meant that software developers did not need to be particularly concerned about efficiency. One could get away with a less than optimal implementation. Adobe Flash is a fine example – even a powerful desktop struggles to keep up at times. Intel and its software ecosystem need to shed this baggage if they intend to excel in non-PC markets.

The porting of Android to ARM involved optimizing by writing a lot of assembly (asm) code. It is not common to find someone writing asm code to optimize applications targeting Intel processors. On the other hand, it is hard to find applications targeting ARM that do not have some level of asm coding. At first glance, one might falsely think that the tools do a better job for Intel. The end uses of ARM processors demand such careful optimization to get the most juice out of a handheld device. Intel and its ecosystem of software developers need to wake up to this reality.

As the evolution of mobile devices from powerful phones to computers gathers momentum, software that delivers a more realistic, complete experience will start appearing in phones. Intel has an advantage here, but ARM is not standing still. ARM collaborated with Adobe to get Flash working on ARM platforms. The effort came to fruition recently.

ARM has been the preferred platform for mobile applications, and as a result an ecosystem of companies thrives writing software solutions targeting ARM. ARM recently announced the formation of a Solution Center for Android, a resource for designers and developers of ARM technology-based products running on Android. A quick check on Intel’s website showed that Atom has a mere 24 software solutions available. ARM’s platform has the blessing of Google!

In the next part we will explore the recent moves of some ARM licensees and how they compete with Intel.

A copy of this article also appeared at Sramana Mitra on Strategy.

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Written by Nalini Kumar Muppala

December 2, 2009 at 7:14 am

Posted in ARM, Intel

Tagged with , , , , , , , ,

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