Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

ARMed for a Takeover

If I was Intel I would be worried. The hegemony of the Wintel empire is facing a threat like none before. And that threat is from ARM. ARM is not a multinational criminal organization (cue the James Bond music). It’s a processor. Actually it’s a processor core architecture used in a host of processors with a pedigree that goes back to 1983.
ARM processors are subversive. They have been used in small, low power devices forever. They lie under the radar of general purpose computing. ARM is found in the stuff that you don’t think of as computers such as mobile phones, network switches, game consoles, and GPS systems. These little devils are the processor of choice for smartphones everywhere. Android was designed for it. It lives in the Apple iPad. There might even be one in your Blu Ray video player. ARM is everywhere.
It’s only a matter of time before ARM sneaks into the Empire of Intel, snatching away bits of key real estate. We saw that with the first Netbooks. Why? How could this happen? Power! It’s all about power. ARM cores provide that almost mystical combination of processing power and low energy use. Just look at the iPad. Inside is an Apple A4 based on four ARM cores. It gives the device all the power it needs while allowing it to claim a battery life of 10 hours while using WI-FI. Sure, that longevity is not only because of the ARM processor but it certainly is a key factor.
None of this would matter if it weren’t for the fact that mobile devices are taking over. I don’t expect servers or desktops or even laptops to go away anytime soon. There are times you need more raw computing power. But much of the time you don’t. For most home uses, a low-end, Internet enabled device that moves around with you is just fine. Truth be told, a lot of business users would gladly ditch the expensive and heavy laptop in favor of something small and light but long on battery life. The movement to cloud computing makes this even more appealing.
So where does this leave Intel? In mortal danger. Intel finds themselves, for the first time in  ages, with an entrenched enemy on it’s doorstep. They are in the position of having to displace a competitor instead of having someone trying to eat their scraps. In the past, they could rely on revenue in all high growth segments, be they servers, desktop, or laptops. Not now. ARM has infiltrated core Intel markets as mobile computing devices supplant laptops and low-end computers.
For those of us used to the seismic shifts in the computer industry, the ARM ascendance is a bit surprising.  We notice the Googles and Microsofts, the Oracles and Apples more. Companies that burst on the scene with all the subtlety of a Mongol invasion. The fifth column tactics of the ARM processor was not as noticeable. That’s why it’s so dangerous to Intel. ARM may have taken their market from within, quietly. It’s much harder to fight a threat that sneaks up on you.
Intel will certainly fight back. They have the technology, size, and money to fight a protracted war. The strategy has to be different from what they are used to. They are the underdog now. Given that, Intel needs to be more aggressive and less complacent. My advice to Intel is “shock and awe”. Buy and build whatever is necessary to crush ARM before it is too late. Or, one morning, all the residents of the Empire of Intel will awake to find ARM processors everywhere and themselves friendless and forlorn.
The enemy is at the gates! To arms! Oh wait. Wrong rallying cry.

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