ARM vs. Intel – Pause for thought.

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Intel shoots at Asia rather than at home.

  • With another attempt to replace Intel chips in PCs on the cards, Intel has moved to protect its position with a not so subtle reminder that its instruction set is covered by a large number of patents.
  • The 40th anniversary of the x86 processor is approaching and to celebrate, Intel has published an editorial extolling the innovation that has made x86 by far the dominant processor in both PCs and servers.
  • The problem has always been that the x86 was never designed to run on battery powered devices meaning that it consumes meaningfully more power than its ARM equivalent.
  • Consequently, there has always been a desire to allow battery powered PCs (laptops) to use the ARM processor as this would, in theory, meaningfully extend their battery life.
  • The first attempt to do this was Windows RT which involved adapting the Windows software to run on the ARM instruction set which failed miserably.
  • The current effort involves an emulator which takes the ARM instruction set and translates it into x86 so that the regular Windows software and applications can run with no modification.
  • However, this proposition already has question marks around implementation and performance (see here) and now Intel is muddying the waters further with its patent pool.
  • Intel has filed around 1,600 patents (533 families) on its x86 instruction set of which around 1,000 (333 families) I estimate are still enforceable.
  • It seems pretty likely that an emulator that makes use of the x86 instruction set will infringe these patents and hence would need a licence from Intel to operate.
  • There are two reasons why I think this warning is not aimed Qualcomm and Microsoft but rather others who may be considering taking a similar route.
    • First: Qualcomm knows and understands more about IP licencing than almost anybody and consequently I think that it will have foreseen this issue.
    • Hence, I think that, together with Microsoft, it will have sorted these issues out with Intel before officially announce its progress down this route.
    • Second: in its 8th June comment, Intel states that “there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization”.
    • At the time of writing, the co-operation between Microsoft and Qualcomm to use an emulator to get Windows running on x86 was not a report, it was an announced fact.
  • This combined with my view that Qualcomm is likely to have sorted the IP issues out in advance, leads me to believe that this warning is targeted elsewhere.
  • Hence, I do not think that this will impact the effort by Qualcomm and Microsoft which, in my opinion, remains completely dependent on the implementation.
  • Emulators have a very bad track record in terms of consuming extra resources which to date, has rarely resulted in any real benefit accruing to the user.
  • I still think that to succeed, these devices must perform at least as well as an Intel powered device at the same price point and have better battery life.
  • I think that this is the minimum requirement as without this, there is no incentive for a user or an institution to purchase the device.
  • This is what I think Microsoft and Qualcomm will be most concenred about but for the other chipmakers in Asia Intel’s comments will have given them pause for thought.

2 thoughts on “ARM vs. Intel – Pause for thought.

  1. I suspect the way round will be to have an existing x86 licensee, such as AMD, manufacture the ARM chips for Qualcomm/Microsoft and pay Intel their standard royalty.

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